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Wednesday, April 7, 1999 Published at 12:42 GMT 13:42 UK

Airlift 'could add to refugee trauma'

The refugees need to rebuild their community, says Helen Bamber

The Kosovo refugees should stay as near to their home country as possible for their future mental health, says a leading trauma expert.

Helen Bamber, founder and director of the Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture, says airlifting some refugees out may be a necessity for medical or other reasons, but for most it is better to stay close to the country they have fled.

Kosovo: Special Report
"Firstly, they may wish to return. It is also easier for them to feel a sense of belonging the nearer they are to the land that they know and understand.

"While they are as near as possible to Kosovo itself, there is more possibility for those with missing relatives and loved ones to perhaps be reunited."


She said that if people stayed in the region, the international community would have to invest heavily to ensure the resources were available for people to create some kind of life and community.

Ms Bamber believes a sense of community is vital to refugees' future psychological wellbeing.

"It is not just a question of providing structured counselling," she said.

"You have to work sensitively with the community and think carefully about how you can help it to rebuild itself.

"That is as important to mental health as counselling.

"Some people may be very distressed and need expert help, but mostly we need to look at how the community can heal itself."

She said each refugee population was different in this respect.

Their language, customs and culture had to be taken into account in devising any community programmes.

Women's groups, organisations for children and other support mechanisms had to be set up, she said, and refugees had to feel safe.

"They need to be enabled to grieve. Society does not like grieving very much, but they need to have a safe place where they can talk to people about their fears and losses."


The Medical Foundation has worked with over 16,000 torture victims since it was founded in 1986.

Helen Bamber is also coordinator of the European network of the International Society of Health and Human Rights.

[ image: A third of Kosovo's people have become refugees]
A third of Kosovo's people have become refugees
It is meeting in Austria next weekend to discuss ways of supporting the Kosovo refugees.

This is likely to include training for aid and health workers on the ground in the refugee camps.

Ms Bamber said support mechanisms needed to be set up for staff.

"They will be dealing with people who have been witnesses to terrible atrocities," she said.

The workers include midwives who may have to deliver the babies of women who have been raped and primary care staff.

If refugees are brought to the UK, she said, local services will need to be prepared.

GPs, midwives, social workers and other support services will have to be trained to deal with people who have suffered a major trauma.

Albanian interpretors would also have to be on hand.

"You cannot just drop people anywhere and expect them to survive," said Ms Bamber.

And if temporary asylum turned into a longer term policy, other support mechanisms would be necessary.

"It is very difficult for people to live in limbo," she said.

"People will need help for quite some time. The longer they remain in exile, the more local resources they will need in terms of housing, education and other services."

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