Migrants Struggle To Access Healthcare, First WHO Study Of Migrant Health During Pandemic Finds
Migrants, who constitute a significant proportion of the global health workforce, struggle to access appropriate healthcare in the midst of the pandemic. Of those surveyed who did not seek healthcare, 35% cited financial constraints and 22% reported fear of deportation.

Despite the “enormous” contributions that migrants have made to society, they still face discrimination, social exclusion, and struggle to access health services even years after migrating, especially during the current pandemic, the first survey ever of migrant health during COVID-19 has found.

The report, which was led by Ghent University and the University of Copenhagen in collaboration with WHO, highlights an urgent need to include refugees and migrants in countries’ COVID-19 response plans, especially in upcoming vaccination campaigns.

WHO director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus.

These preliminary findings, based on self-reports of 30,000 refugees and migrants around the world, were published on International Migrants Day, just a week after May Parsons, a Filipina nurse in the UK, was the first to administer a coronavirus vaccine developed by a Turkish couple in Germany: the mRNA-based Pfizer/BioNTech vaccine.

“It is indeed critical that we join forces to ensure that migrants, refugees and asylum seekers internally displaced persons, and in general, people on the move, are not left out of our global efforts to fight back against the COVID-19,” said António Vitorino, director general of International Organization for Migration, at a press conference on Friday.

“I want to take this opportunity to call on governments to count and include all migrants present in their territory, no matter their legal status in their national vaccination plans.”

WHO’s director general Dr. Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus added: “Investing in the health of migrants is not just the right thing to do – it also has long term benefits for social cohesion and economic development. Exclusion is costly in the long run, but inclusion pays off for everyone.”

Migrants Contribute To Innovation & Lifesaving Work, But They Lack Access To Basic Services Despite High Need

Despite the innovation that migrants can bring, and the lifesaving work they undertake in a range of sectors – particularly in healthcare – they remain outsiders in their adopted communities, especially undocumented migrants, said Dr. Tedros.

In countries like the US, migrants account for almost a fifth of the health workforce, with numbers rising rapidly. In the last decade, the number of migrant doctors and nurses working in Organisation for Economic Co-operation and Development (OECD) countries has increased by a stunning 60%, according to WHO.

“To be honest, what I have found particularly intolerable in this current crisis is that while being so often left behind, migrants have also been on the front line of the response to the pandemic, taking personal risks for everyone’s well being,” added Vitorino. “And this is across many critical sectors, not just the healthcare sector, but also transport, food, retail, research.”

Half Of Migrants Surveyed Struggle With Depression, Worry, Anxiety And Loneliness

The new survey also found that migrant health was most affected in the European, American, Southeast Asian and Western Pacific WHO regions, triggering depression, worry, anxiety, and loneliness in more than half of migrants and asylum seekers surveyed. The report also found that one in five migrants had increased their intake of drugs and alcohol compared to the start of the pandemic.

12% of those surveyed lacked access to healthcare and 10% were not entitled to healthcare.

Migrants are also generally less likely to access high-quality healthcare, found the report, despite their worse health outcomes. Of those who did not seek healthcare, 35% cited financial constraints and 22% reported fear of deportation. Additionally, 12% lacked access to healthcare and 10% were not entitled to healthcare, among other barriers.

“One of the crucial issues is that migrants sometimes are suspicious to look for health care because they are afraid of contacting health services,” said Vitorinio. “They [fear being] detained or even deported.”

The survey, which closed on 31 October, was based on around 30 self-reported questions in almost 40 languages. However, given the online nature of the report, it is likely that these trends underestimate the struggles faced by migrants, as it could not account for participants without access to technology.

Health Policies Must Be Inclusive To The Diverse Needs Of Migrants And Refugees 

Countries can take several measures to include refugees and migrants in their COVID-19 response plans, noted Dr Tedros on Friday.

They should de-link access to care from a migrant’s legal status, remove financial barriers to access, improve internet access for migrants, offer health information in multiple languages, and foster mutual trust between public health services and migrants, he said.  This is especially important as the world gears up for what is likely to be the largest vaccination campaign in history.

Before the pandemic, only 40% of all countries offered universal health coverage to all migrants, irrespective of their legal status, Vitorino flagged. On the upside, several countries have introduced new policies or relaxed requirements to bolster access to healthcare ever since the pandemic struck.

“Health for all means, all, including migrants,” said Dr Tedros. “That means increasing investments in health, especially in primary healthcare to create health systems that are sensitive to migrants needs, their language and their health problems.”


Image Credits: Flickr – EU Civil Protection and Humanitarian Aid, MSF/ Sophia Apostolia.

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