Caring for refugee families in the UK - The nurse’s role
Kathy Oxtoby looks at the nurses who are on the frontlines of the global refugee crisis
As of mid-2021 there were 135,912 refugees, 83,489 pending asylum cases and 3,968 stateless persons in the UK
Resilience and mental strength, sensitivity to different cultures, and a calm approach to difficult situations. These are just some of the qualities needed by nurses caring for refugee children and families forced from their homes due to conflict and war.
While sometimes challenging, the benefits of providing this support are many and life changing, both for the families and nurses themselves.
‘There’s a lot of professional and personal satisfaction from working with refugee families’
Whenever Kirsty McDonagh reflects on the difference she can make in her role as a specialist health visitor for homeless families, she always comes back to the memory of one particular refugee child.
‘She was four years old. Her mum brought her to our clinic in a pram because she didn’t have a wheelchair. The child had multiple complex health conditions and was very malnourished. It was shocking to see,’ recalls Ms McDonagh.
‘I’m really proud of how our team quickly created a network of support around that little girl, including finding her a paediatric doctor, and organising a wheelchair. She had an impact on us all.’
For the past six years, Ms McDonagh has been part of a team at Central and North West London NHS Foundation Trust that supports homeless families in Camden, including refugees.
‘I started my career as a health visitor, but decided to specialise in homelessness, as I have a passion for improving the health inequalities that exist for the homeless population within London,’ says Ms McDonagh. ‘When I was younger, I also had experience of living in temporary accommodation, so I understand how difficult that situation can be.’
She feels homeless families ‘can often be overlooked - and the fact my role does not exist in most areas is testament to that’.
Her role, she explains, is ‘very holistic’. ‘It’s not just about health – we work with a
“In 2020, as the pandemic hit, large numbers of refugee families arrived in the Camden community”
wide network of people. And we recognise that homeless families not only need support – they are also a part of our community.’
In 2020, as the pandemic hit, large numbers of refugee families arrived in the Camden community. They came to the UK from all over the world, including Vietnam, Mongolia, Iraq, Iran, Eritrea, Nigeria, and Albania. ‘Their reasons were vast and varied,’ says Ms McDonagh. Most people were seeking asylum from war and conflict in their homeland. Some were escaping from discrimination towards their particular ethnic group or had been sex trafficked across borders.
They were placed temporarily in hotels and student accommodation that were empty due to COVID-19 measures. At one point over 700 refugees were living in this temporary accommodation.
‘That’s when refugees became part of our role,’ recalls Ms McDonagh. ‘We had to then find a way of integrating refugee care into what we do. And we had to find out what their needs were and how to meet them.’
Ms McDonagh and her team set up a service to support these families. ‘It wasn’t easy – it took some time to find out what help they needed,’ she says.
Her role involves a health assessment of refugee families’ needs, helping to make sure they are registered with a GP and referring them to specialist services such as family support workers.
With many refugee families
6 | Independent Nurse | September 2022