The Lancet 2007; 370:2070
Access to health care for undocumented migrants in Europe
New immigrants are frequently blamed for all that is wrong in European society. Migrants are often perceived as threats to jobs, livelihoods, and cultural identities. There is little justification for such accusations. According to a recent report by the UK organisation, Migrants Rights Network, immigration can create social tensions but it also brings social and economic benefits. For example, in Europe, health services heavily rely on the considerable contributions of migrant health professionals.
There are an estimated 60 million migrants in the European region and 8 million undocumented migrants—often referred to as illegal migrants, as they have no legal status to live in a destination country. Undocumented migrants are one of the most vulnerable populations in Europe and often have poor health. They may live and work in countries for long periods of time yet their right to access health and social care is often severely restricted.
A recent report from the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants shows that access to health care throughout European countries is increasingly being used as a weapon in immigration control. Health coverage varies between countries, with Spain providing the widest coverage and Germany the least. Doctors and nurses usually uphold their ethical and professional duties and do not openly deny health care to anyone although they are often advised to check the immigration status of patients before treating them. Hospital administrators, often the first point of access, usually have no problem in turning undocumented migrants away. In the UK, controversial plans to bar undocumented migrants from accessing free health care, other than through emergency departments, have been delayed after reservations about the public health implications and concern among medical professionals.
The current stance of European countries makes a farce of the UN conventions that they have all ratified, which include guaranteeing the right to health care for undocumented migrants. All member states should detach health care from immigration control and take the necessary measures to ensure that access to health care for undocumented migrants is uniformly implemented by national and local authorities.