Common strategy for refugees


Refugees and migrants wait in line to be registered as asylum-seekers in Berlin, Germany. Photo: UNICEF/Ashley Gilbertson VII

As the unprecedented influx of refugees and migrants into Europe strains host countries’ medical resources, the United Nations World Health Organization (WHO) opened a high-level meeting in Rome today to draft a common strategy on health care for the newcomers, ranging from prompt vaccination against measles and polio to dealing with childbirth complications.

“Health systems in the European Region, including those of countries that receive refugees and migrants, are well equipped to diagnose and treat common infectious and non-communicable diseases,” said Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe, which includes Turkey and has received nearly three million refugees and migrants this year alone.

“But we, as a region, must seek to ensure that all countries are adequately prepared and organized to withstand the added pressures of supporting a mass influx of people, while at the same time protecting the health of their resident populations,” she told health ministers and high-level representatives from Europe and other WHO regions at the start of the two-day meeting.

The aim is to agree on a common approach and joint action as large-scale migration places immense and often unexpected pressure on the health systems of host countries, testing both their capacity and preparedness.

In 2015, nearly two million refugees and migrants have taken shelter in Turkey, and more than 700,000 in other countries of the region. Up to five per cent of these need medical assistance for accidental injuries, hypothermia, burns, cardiovascular events, pregnancy- and delivery-related complications, diabetes and hypertension.

Mass population movements, water shortage and inadequate shelter and sanitation increase the risk of catching communicable diseases.

“A good response to the challenges of people on the move requires health system preparedness and capacity, including robust epidemiological data and migration intelligence, careful planning, training and, above all, adherence to the principles of equity, solidarity and human rights,”

Dr. Jakab said. “A common framework for joint action on refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region is of urgent importance,” she added, stressing the need for collective actions.

Due to increased risk of communicable diseases, vaccination is high on the agenda, with UN agencies recommending immunization without delay according to the national schedules of any country where they may reside for more than a week.

In view of recent measles outbreaks, countries should prioritize vaccination against measles, mumps and rubella (MMR) and polio, but vaccination is not recommended at border crossings unless there is an outbreak in the host or transit country.

Many countries, particularly those on the front line, have already undertaken vaccination campaigns for new arrivals, but these groups still face many complex challenges, including limited access to health services, due to high cost, lack of information and administrative, cultural or language barriers.