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Physical and mental health of Afghan, Iranian and Somali asylum seekers and refugees living in the Netherlands



Worldwide, the number of refugees and asylum seekers is estimated to be about 11.5 million plus a much larger number of former refugees who have obtained a residence permit in a new country. Although asylum seekers have been coming to the Netherlands since the 1980s, very few epidemiological studies have focused on this group of inhabitants or on the refugees who have resettled in this country.


The objectives of this study were to estimate the prevalence rates of physical and mental health problems and to identify the risk factors for these complaints.

Design, Setting, and Participants

A population-based study was conducted in the Netherlands from June 2003 to April 2004 among adult refugees and asylum seekers from Afghanistan, Iran and Somalia. Asylum seekers were living in 14 randomly selected reception centres, and random samples of refugees were obtained from the population registers of three municipalities (Arnhem, Leiden and Zaanstad). A total of 178 refugees and 232 asylum seekers participated (response rates of 59 and 89%, respectively).

Main Outcome Measures

General health and physical health were measured with the Short-Form 36 and a list of 19 chronic conditions, respectively; symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), depression and anxiety, were measured with the Harvard Trauma Questionnaire and the Hopkins Symptoms Checklist-25.


More asylum seekers (59.1%) than refugees (42.0%) considered their health to be poor (P=0.001). In both groups, approximately half of the respondents suffered from more than one chronic condition. More asylum seekers than refugees had symptoms of PTSD (28.1 and 10.6%, respectively; P=0.000) and depression/anxiety (68.1 and 39.4, respectively; P=0.000). Respondents from Afghanistan and, in particular, from Iran had a higher risk for PTSD and depression/anxiety. Female gender was associated with chronic conditions, PTSD and depression/anxiety, and higher age was associated with poor general health and chronic conditions. A greater number of traumatic events was associated with all health outcomes, and more post-migration stress and less social support were associated with PTSD and depression/anxiety symptoms.


Both physical and mental health problems are highly prevalent among refugees and asylum seekers in the Netherlands. Although higher prevalence rates for most health outcomes were found among asylum seekers, both the specific health services for asylum seekers and the general health services in the municipalities should be aware of these problems.

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The research for this article was funded by the Netherlands Organization for Health Research and Development (project number 2100.0097), who also advised the investigators with regard to the design and execution of the study.

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Correspondence to Annette A. M. Gerritsen PhD.

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Gerritsen, A.A.M., Bramsen, I., Devillé, W. et al. Physical and mental health of Afghan, Iranian and Somali asylum seekers and refugees living in the Netherlands. Soc Psychiat Epidemiol 41, 18–26 (2006).

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Key words

  • refugee
  • mental health
  • post-traumatic stress disorder
  • prevalence study
  • determinants