Migrants, refugees at risk of poorer access to healthcare, WHO urges immediate action

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Millions of migrants and refugees face poorer healthcare than the communities in their host countries, the World Health Organization warned in its first-ever report on the health of migrants and refugees.

Published on Wednesday, the report highlighted that this issue may jeopardize meeting the health-related Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs) for these populations.

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The UN health body called for immediate action to ensure displaced people, migrants, and refugees have access to healthcare services that suit their sensitive needs.

The report stated that this was mainly due to various suboptimal health determinants like income, housing, education, and access to health services, compounded by cultural, legal, and linguistic barriers.

“Whether by choice or by force, to be on the move is to be human and is part of human life. Whatever a person’s motivation, circumstance, origin, or migratory status, we must equivocally reiterate that health is a human right for all, and that universal health coverage must be inclusive of refugees and migrants,” WHO Director-General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus said in the forward of the report.

There are around 1 billion migrants worldwide, accounting for one in eight people, according to the report.

Diseases, climate change, famine and conflict have forced millions of people to flee their homes and the Russian invasion of Ukraine has now pushed the global number of displaced people to over 100 million for the first time in history.

A recent analysis of more than 17 million participants from 16 countries across five WHO regions found that migrant workers were less likely to use health services, and more likely to sustain an occupational injury, when compared with non-migrant counterparts, according to the United Nations.

In addition, a large proportion of the 169 million migrant workers globally are often employed in jobs that are demanding, dangerous and dirty, putting them at a much greater risk of occupational hazards leading to accidents, injuries and work-related health problems, than non-migrant workers. Their situation is also compounded by their limited or restricted access to healthcare services.

The UN health body said that while there was plenty of data and health information on the matter, it was also fragmented and not comparable across countries and over longer periods of time.

WHO highlighted that although migrant populations were sometimes identifiable in global datasets used for SDG monitoring, health data was often missing from migration statistics.

The health body added that migrant status variables were frequently missing from health statistics, making it difficult to track progress with regards to health-related SDGs.

“It is imperative that we do more on refugees and migrants’ health but if we want to change the status quo, we need urgent investments to improve the quality, relevance and completeness of health data on refugees and migrants,” WHO’s Deputy Director-General Dr. Zsuzsanna Jakab urged.

“We need sound data collection and monitoring systems that truly represent the diversity of the world population and the experience that refugees and migrants face the world over and that can guide more effective policies and interventions.”

While many countries have appropriate policies and frameworks in place to address and respond to refugees and migrants’ health needs, WHO said that disparities still persisted due to the lack of meaningful and effective implementation of these policies.

“Health does not begin or end at a country’s border. Migratory status should therefore not be a discriminatory factor but a policy driver on which to build and strengthen healthcare and social and financial protection. We must reorient existing health systems into integrated and inclusive health services for refugees and migrants, in line with the principles of primary healthcare and universal health coverage,” Dr. Santino Severoni, Director of WHO’s Health and Migration Program, said.

“With conflicts, climate change, growing inequality, and global emergencies such as the COVID-19 pandemic, more and more people will be on the move. Like anyone else, refugees and migrants have the right to the highest attainable standard of health,” the WHO chief said in a press briefing on Wednesday.

“We hope governments will use this report to develop evidence-informed policies and actions. And we hope advocates will use it in their efforts to call for inclusive health systems,” Ghebreyesus added.

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