On September 29th, IPI organized a panel discussion on “Desperate Migration and Health” at the European Health Forum in Gastein, Austria. The panel was designed to highlight the health needs of people on the move, and identify remedial action to reduce vulnerability.
Jessica Reinisch, Director for the Centre for the Study of Internationalism at the University of London, provided an historical overview of the relationship between migration and health. She recalled that a campaign to control cholera in the mid-nineteenth century was one of the first reluctant attempts at internationalism. She reminded the audience how, after the first and second world wars, refugees were viewed as a threat—not only for the spread of disease, but also for the “political contamination” of ideologies. She noted that the narrative of “double contagion” is evident among sections of the media and politicians today.
Davide Mosca, Director of the Migration Health Division at the International Organization for Migration, highlighted the vulnerability of people on the move. He pointed out that the legal regime covering the estimated 245 million migrants is weak. Furthermore, he observed that while everyone has the right to health there is not universal health coverage: many migrants therefore fall through the cracks. He therefore called for more concerted action, including in the context of the Global Compact on Migration, to address the health needs of migrants.
Julie Lyn Hall, Director of Health and Care at the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies, outlined six groups of people whose health is affected by migration. Three are visible: those on the move; those who settle; and those who are stuck in transition. She described three other less visible groups: those who return; host communities; and people who are left behind in areas of high migration. She stressed the need for “future proofing” the health needs of migrants through long-term strategic planning in order to manage the situation more effectively.
Miriam Rabkin of the Columbia University Medical Center highlighted the gap between health needs and health services for migrants. She stressed the need for continuity of care for migrants with chronic diseases. She noted that the main burden for dealing with the health needs of migrants and refugees is falling on lower-income countries. General support for their healthcare systems would therefore benefit the populations of those countries as well as displaced people. Rabkin stressed that in the future, discussions on the health needs of migrants should involve migrants.
Bernd Rechel of the European Observatory on Health Systems and Policies presented data that showed little increase in the number of migrants coming to Europe over the past five years. He also debunked the myth that migrants are heading to countries that have the most generous healthcare systems. He stressed the need for more data to ensure evidence-based policies, more evaluation of good practices, and greater access of migrants to health care. He warned that marginalizing migrants will increase the risks and costs of healthcare, both to the affected groups and to the rest of society.
Several speakers stressed the need to address the psycho-social needs of people on the move, as well as volunteers and health workers helping refugees and migrants.
The panel and public concluded that greater focus is needed on the health needs of migrants. It was suggested that an inter-disciplinary group – involving medical experts, civil society, migrants, and relevant inter-governmental organizations – should be formed in order to provide recommendations on the issue, for example in support of the Global Compact on Migration.