Migration, Assimilation, and Chronic Disease Among Refugees in Belgium

Solveig Cunningham, Emory University
Hadewijch Vandenheede, Vrije Universiteit Brussel

Refugees and asylum-seekers tend to be even more disadvantaged than other immigrants, having lower levels of education, social connections, and poorer health. Research on foreign-born people, especially in North America, has shown deterioration in health with years since resettlement, most markedly in terms of diabetes, obesity, and cardiovascular diseases; research in Europe has also shown higher levels of diabetes-related mortality among foreign-born people. The origins of these risks are not well understood, but a leading explanation has been acculturation, a process through which immigrants adopt new products, values, and behaviors that may be detrimental to health. Whether these patterns also hold for refugees is unclear. This study examines how health-related behaviors change after resettlement in Belgium, a leading recipient of refugees and immigrants. We adapted previously-developed survey instruments for data collection about health behavior changes and health. We collected data in Brussels in 2017 in English or Arabic using venue-based sampling. The 60 adult respondents were from 23 countries and had lived in Belgium on average 8 years. Respondents had generally positive perceptions of their health; still, 5% reported having been diagnosed with diabetes, 5% with heart disease, and 12% with hypertension; 13% assessed themselves as underweight and 5% as obese. Respondents spent more than 2 hours per day being active, but also another two hours in inactive screen-viewing. About a third of respondents did not report any changes in diets since arrival; among the rest, Belgian street foods were the most commonly listed foods adopted after resettlement; many reported changes in the types of grains consumed; still, many people also reported having adopted some new healthy items - vegetables, fruits, pastas. The main considerations in changing food habits among refugee families have to do with ease of finding foods. Respondents demonstrated accurate knowledge of what is healthy and unhealthy.

Presented in Session 31: Forced Migration: Family Transitions, Health and Vulnerability