Before Covid-19 ever reared its ugly head, migrants across Europe were suffering from overcrowded conditions and a lack of basic healthcare in refugee camps.
In the ensuing chaos surrounding Covid-19, they have been neglected by the media and policymakers alike. Yet the migrant crisis is far from over.
Migrant health issues have recently been exacerbated in 2020 thanks to tensions between the EU and Turkey along the Greek border, and the outbreak of Covid-19 is causing further deterioration of refugee camps on Greek islands.
“During this terrible crisis the issue of migrant health has been almost completely forgotten in Europe,” says my colleague professor Luciano Saso, vice-rector for European university networks of Sapienza, University of Rome.
“After many years during which migrants were very often in the headlines, appearing the most serious threat to European stability and welfare, the question is not in the news anymore.”
Previous claims that migrants bring communicable diseases to host countries have been debunked by a review of the existing evidence carried out by the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) and the European Federation of Academies of Sciences and Humanities (ALLEA) earlier this year.
The results of the review showed that, in fact, migrants are currently more at risk of contracting Covid-19 from Europeans.
“Forcibly displaced migrants are still struggling to reach Europe and other ‘safe’ areas of the world, exposing themselves to the risk of Covid-19 infection in addition to the previous ones,” says Saso.
Migrants could in fact provide the skills that we need to tackle the crisis. Many refugees are qualified healthcare staff, and countries like Germany, the UK, the US and Australia are quickly incorporating refugees with foreign qualifications to address shortages in their health workforce.
One key issue that arose from the review was that there is a need for reliable, validated and comparable data to be shared across countries and regions. Standardised and clear data can inform policies and confront myths around migration and health.
“The Covid-19 pandemic dramatically shows that the health of migrants is being considered as a marginal matter,” says professor Alfred Spira, a member of the French Academy of Medicine.
“Improvements concerning the access of migrants to health services can be made through multiple and coordinated initiatives which should be urgently undertaken. In particular, it is necessary to develop adapted, “migrant friendly” approaches, taking into account sociocultural differences and their specificities.”
Evidence-based, people-focused policies need to be implemented, and here the academies, whose expertise criss-crosses many research domains and European borders, can be reliable sources for decision-makers.
“To inform migrant health-policy decisions, we see a need for more robust evidence. Academies of Sciences are well placed to act as a source of independent and trustworthy information,” says professor Graham Caie, vice-president of ALLEA.
“By synthesising scholarly acquired knowledge in natural and social sciences as well as humanities, academies are in a unique position to offer qualified counselling to policy.”
Recommendations to improve migrant health and wellbeing were outlined by FEAM and ALLEA in a statement in early May.
The list includes, but is not limited to, the need for:
1. More scientifically validated data and frequent updates on migrant health to be produced and reflected in evidence-based policies
2. increased cross-sectorial collaboration to address current challenges in migrant health, also with a view towards tackling shortages of healthcare workers
3. active involvement of the health sector in policy discussions and actions on migration
4. the easy transport of personal health data while complying with protection of personal data regulations.
As we start to emerge from the worst phases of the coronavirus pandemic, the impact of the looming economic crisis on migrant health and wellbeing could be grave.
“There is a serious risk that the incipient economic crisis will further reduce the resources allocated by the EU to face migrant health issues,” says Saso.
“The only hope is that the attention to the health of human beings and the pain we recently felt for the death of each of them in Europe will be extended to migrants as well.”
Professor George Griffin is president of the Federation of European Academies of Medicine (FEAM) since 2018 and a Fellow of the UK Academy of Medical Sciences. He is emeritus professor of medicine and infectious diseases at St. George’s, University of London and member of the board of Public Health England.
Click here to read this piece on the EU Observer
Souda refugee camp in Greece (Photo: Mustafa Jado)