Helping refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants access a range of health care

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Refugees, those seeking asylum and others from a migrant background, can often suffer from a range of physical and mental health problems, which can be linked to human rights abuses and persecution - including torture, and the traumas of fleeing home.

Health care issues that refugees may face

Refugees may have experienced traumatic conditions during their journey to the UK. They may have been separated from their families and afflicted by post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD), other stress-related illnesses or insecurity. Impacts upon the health of refugees and asylum seekers can also include those experienced by other deprived and excluded groups, such as problems linked to poverty and poor accommodation.

Research and statistics regarding the ill health and disability needs of refugees and asylum seekers in the UK are quite limited. A study released in 2014 by Jayaweera outlines evidence that migrants residing in the UK experience poorer outcomes with their physical and mental health than the UK population and that these can vary according to migration histories and experience in the country.

For those seeking asylum, research has focused on the physical and mental impact of conflict and war in some countries of origin - trauma associated with migration and settlement processes including isolation, loss of social status, poverty and insecure legal immigration status, and the impact of government policies such as detention and dispersal in the receiving society.

A 2002 study by the British Medical Association, suggested that:

  • One in six refugees has a physical health problem severe enough to affect their life
  • Two thirds have experienced significant anxiety or depression.

Health problems experienced by refugees

Refugees experience health problems that include:

  • Communicable diseases often linked to poverty and overcrowding
  • Psychological and social health problems – panic attacks, memory loss and stress-related problems such as heart disorder and cancer, as well as the effects of war and torture
  • Sexual health needs
  • Chronic diseases, such as diabetes or hypertension
  • Dental problems
  • Consequences of injury and torture
  • Poor antenatal care and pregnancy outcomes.

Social isolation, discrimination and racism can have a compounding negative effect on the health of refugees, as does the uncertainty of a life in limbo and fear of being sent home.

Role of the health professionals

Health professionals are likely to be the first people that a family turns to for help with an illness or disability. Whether you work in the hospital or community, with adults or children, you may be the only person who is able to ask the right questions to find out whether a child is taking on caring responsibilities. Timely intervention could prevent a child undertaking inappropriate levels of care.

Useful links and further guidance

In addition to the information above, we have more detailed guidance on: