Legal status of refugees main barrier in access to healthcare, says WHO

A refugee camp (Photo by Julie Ricard on Unsplash)

A World Health Organization (WHO) report on the health of refugees and migrants provides a comprehensive picture of the factors that prevent these vulnerable populations from accessing healthcare.

Millions of refugees and migrants are being denied access to quality healthcare in their host countries due to their legal identities, according to a report released by the World Health Organization (WHO) on Wednesday. This comes at a time when the number of people fleeing their homes is increasing worldwide. 

In its first major global report into refugees and migrant health, the WHO said these groups are often not entitled to the same healthcare services as the citizens of their host country, putting them at greater health risk. They might for example not have access to public insurance, despite already facing financial hardships. 

The report reveals that if refugees and vulnerable migrants face poorer health outcomes than their host communities, it is not because they are inherently unhealthy. It is a combination of several social factors including their legal status, income, education, housing, access to quality services, language and culture. 

‘Legal identity of refugees a major factor’

Speaking to Geneva Solutions, Dr Santino Severoni, the director of WHO’s health and migration programme, said that the legal identity of a person in a country plays a major role in determining the kind of care they were entitled to. “This is probably the most important barrier (for them to access quality healthcare),” he said.

However, Saveroni added that when this factor combines with determinants like culture, language and the competency of healthcare workers to address the needs of the vulnerable population, the situation becomes worse.

For example, certain religions and cultures prohibit women from approaching men outside their families to discuss issues concerning their sexual and reproductive health, so deputing a male gynecologist to tend to them could discourage them from seeking care.

‘Lack of inclusive policies will impact SDG goal’

If healthcare policies are not inclusive of migrants and refugees, then it would adversely impact the world’s capacity to achieve the health-related sustainable development goals (SDGs), the WHO warned. It added that it is important to combine health and migratory data to track progress towards the SDGs.

Dr Severoni said that around one-third of the countries across the globe adopted a universal approach of providing primary healthcare [to refugees and vulnerable migrant population] while a majority of the countries resorting to temporary measures based on necessity, with an intention to go back to status quo.

The report also shows that there are critical gaps in health information concerning refugees and migrants. It added that while data available is aplenty, it is fragmented and not comparable between countries and across time periods and stressed that countries must have inclusive healthcare policies and coherent data.

Calling the report “landmark and alarming”, director-general of the WHO Dr Tedros Adhanum Ghabreyesus told journalists in Geneva that it highlights a fundamental knowledge gap. “Refugees and migrants are virtually absent from global health surveys and health data making these vulnerable groups almost invisible in the design of health systems and services,” he said.

Dr Severoni said: “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”.