Migrant health: a human rights issue

By Savi Hensman
September 12, 2013

Protecting the health of migrants is a matter of human rights, according to a report by the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) along with the World Health Organisation and UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (UNHCHR). This raises important ethical and legal concerns, especially in countries bringing in measures which reduce migrants’ access to healthcare or damage their health. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/18710)

The report, International Migration, Health and Human Rights, was launched against a background of increasing hostility to foreigners and racism in various parts of the world, often fuelled by politicians and sections of the media. What migrants have contributed to economic prosperity and local communities is often overlooked.

Four principles should guide a public health approach, urged WHO Director General Margaret Chan. These are to: “Ensure fair access to health services, protect the fundamental right to health for migrants, put life-saving measures in place when migration results from conflicts or disasters, and guard against adverse health consequences associated with the stresses that often accompany migration.”

Navi Pillay, the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights, warned that “These migrants are more likely to be denied basic labour protections, due process guarantees, personal security and healthcare. They are vulnerable to suffering prolonged detention or ill-treatment, and in some cases enslavement, rape or even murder.”

“Health is a human right and the right to health is indispensable to the exercise of other human rights, that is, it is also closely related to and dependent upon the realisation of, among others, the rights to housing, food, social security, work and family. The right to health is equally tied to the key principle of non-discrimination, which recognizes the ‘inherent dignity’ of every human being,” states the report.

Though “Migrants make significant economic and social contributions to sending and receiving countries”, many “have little or no access to health and social services that they contribute to, although they may be exposed to health risks, such as exploitation, dangerous working and substandard living conditions.”

It is almost 65 years since the Universal Declaration of Human Rights was adopted. In much of the world, key aspects are still widely ignored. While some faith groups and voluntary organisations have worked to challenge the victimisation of migrants and other vulnerable groups and help those in greatest need, more needs to be done.

Many people believe that harsh treatment of their neighbours who are migrants will not affect them. Yet the erosion of human rights for any section of the population ultimately leaves everyone at risk, as well as creating a less just and compassionate society and less peaceful world. (http://www.ekklesia.co.uk/node/17658)

Read the IOM/UNCHR report here: http://publications.iom.int/bookstore/free/IOM_UNHCHR_EN_web.pdf

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(c) Savitri Hensman is a regular Christian commentator on politics, social justice, welfare and religion. She was born in Sri Lanka and follows development there, and in the region, closely. She works in the care and equalities sector and is an Ekklesia associate.

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