The health of those forced to flee is a major priority for UNHCR. 

Photo: © UNHCR/Andrew McConnell

UNHCR strives to ensure that all refugees are able to access life-saving and essential healthcare. This can include HIV prevention, protection and treatment, reproductive health services, food security and nutrition, and water, sanitation and hygiene services. We know that poverty can affect health and well-being. Thanks to our donors and partners, the assistance we provide is transforming lives in refugee camps, settlements and rural and urban populations around the world. 

Health and nutrition programs are delivered with an emphasis on primary health care and support for secondary hospital care. Our healthcare interventions are based on needs, risks and vulnerabilities, which are determined by a health and nutrition partner and/or UNHCR staff. 

Among forcibly displaced populations in developing countries, the top concerns facing children under the age of five are malaria, malnutrition, measles, diarrhoea and respiratory tract infections. At the start of an emergency, our priorities and those of our partners, are measles immunization, nutritional support, control of communicable diseases and epidemics, implementation of the reproduction health measures and public health surveillance. As the situation stabilizes, these services are enlarged. In more developed and urban settings, public health priorities among adults shift toward cardiovascular and chronic diseases and cancers.

Mental Health Support

Refugees are remarkably resilient and are able to move on despite their distressing experiences. We provide counselling and other psychosocial support to the people forced to flee who need such help. Our response is critical when social structures and essential services have broken down. 

Mental health care empowers refugees to cope with the challenges of displacement, take care of their families, earn a living, and contribute to their communities.

Sexual and Reproductive Health

Quality sexual and reproductive health services are essential to the well-being of refugees and other persons of concern. It is an important part of all humanitarian responses. The services cover a broad spectrum of care, including maternal and newborn care, access to contraception and the prevention and treatment of HIV or other sexually transmitted infections.  


Treatment for HIV and access to comprehensive reproductive health services should be a right for everyone, including the forcibly displaced.  

But in emergencies, health services are often disrupted, and this affects people who need continuous prevention, care and treatment—especially those living with HIV. 

At UNHCR, we promote and support the development of programs to ensure universal access to prevention, care, treatment and support programs. Our organization is a UNAIDS co-sponsor and the lead convening agency for HIV in emergency situations.

Water, Sanitation and Hygiene

When people flee their homes, they often struggle to safely and easily access adequate water, sanitation and hygiene facilities, endangering their health and survival.  

Our Water Sanitation and Hygiene (WASH) program ensure the delivery of water and sanitation services to millions of people in camps, outside of camps and in urban settings. 

Accessible and adequate WASH interventions have positive effects on: 

  • Protection: Long distances to water points can put young girls and women at risk of sexual violence. 
  • Nutrition: A woman drawing 80 litres of water for her family from a well and carrying it to their home 200 metres away (often uphill from the well) uses approximately 17 per cent of the standard ration of 2,100 Kcal/day just to accomplish this task. 
  • Education: 42 per cent of children attending school in one Ugandan refugee camp had their schooling interrupted due to water collection. 
  • Food security and livelihoods: Women who spend their time collecting water are missing opportunities to participate in more productive activities. 
  • Environment: Non-sustainable usage of water resources can potentially overexploit groundwater resources. 
Nutrition and Food Security

Ensuring that people have access to adequate, nutrient-rich food and safe water is essential for protecting the safety, health and well-being of millions who have been forced to flee.  

We strive to improve the nutritional status of the displaced wherever we can. 

The right to freedom from hunger and malnutrition is also backed by international conventions, as are the highest standards of health and health care.  

There is a clear link between nutrition and public health. Communicable diseases brought on in part by malnutrition are responsible for millions of preventable deaths each year. Mass population movements can result in high rates of malnutrition, sickness and death. 

At UNHCR, we work to improve nutrition through strategic funding, as well as partnerships with the World Food Programme (WFP) and others. We have also identified essential aid packages to boost services for populations in need, as well as training, standard guidelines, strategic plans and staffing practices. 

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