Substance Use Disorders in Humanitarian Settings

© UN Photo/Sahem Rababah
18 September 2020 — According to the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) there are now close to 80 million forcibly displaced people worldwide, and with mental health among this segment of the world’s population already a neglected area, the treatment of substance use disorders is increasingly overlooked in public health and humanitarian settings.
To explore a solution to this alarming crisis, UNODC —in coordination with WHO and UNHCR, along with the US State Department and the Bureau of International Narcotics and Law Enforcement Affairs— recently brought together 110 experts for a three-day online consultation aimed at gathering the latest information and expertise on addressing substance use disorders in humanitarian settings. Comprising practitioners as well as people with lived experience, the multidisciplinary team was composed of members from 32 UN Member States, regional and international organizations, academia, and civil society.
Important groundwork had already been laid by UNODC, with the three rapid assessments of substance use and associated health and social services previously conducted in selected relief and humanitarian settings — Pakistan, Peru and Uganda. The online consultation served to reinforce those initial efforts and set forth a framework and next steps for the development of a technical tool that would address substance use disorders and its associated health and social consequences within humanitarian settings.
The tool, once developed, will serve to support refugees and displaced populations who are affected by drug use disorders that are facing grave challenges as they often find themselves without appropriate support and without access to evidence-based drug use disorder treatment and care.
During the virtual event, valuable input was sourced from the participants on existing good practices, common challenges, and specific needs in the field. Some of the important takeaway points included the finding that both displaced persons and those with substance use disorders are frequently denied basic human rights. It was also noted that substance use disorders are a result of multiple factors, including psychosocial distress, availability of different substances, duration of displacement, competing priorities within the political realm, and stigmatization.
In addition, despite substance use prevention and recovery taking centre stage for national and global public health policymaking, little progress has been made to address the issue of substance use among conflict-displaced populations — thus, inferring that the scope and implementation of treatment must be scaled up at the global level.
Once in place, this evidence-informed tool to be developed by UNODC’s Prevention, Treatment and Rehabilitation Section, in coordination with WHO and UNHCR, will mark an important contribution to address substance use disorders in humanitarian settings; and ultimately increase access to substance use disorder treatment for refugees and displaced populations in need.