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WHO report | The health of migrants and refugees takes a hit

Dangerous jobs, prolonged detentions, inadequate housing, increased vulnerability to exploitation: the conditions of migrants and refugees in their host countries or during their crossing often have a negative impact on their health, notes the first global report of the World Health Organization (WHO) on the matter.

Posted July 20

Janie Gosselin

Janie Gosselin
The Press

“Refugees and migrants often experience far worse health outcomes than host populations, compounded by their vulnerable situation and poor determinants of health,” write WHO Deputy Director-General Zsuzsanna Jakab and the director of the health and migration program, Santino Severoni, in the preface to the document, published on Wednesday.

The organization has compiled analyzes of more than 17 million participants in 16 countries in an attempt to paint an overall picture of the situation, deploring however the lack of specific data.

Of course, not all situations are the same: inadequate sanitation facilities in a camp endanger the health of refugees just as direct access to drinking water does not in an apartment. But the challenges are not limited to less affluent countries.

Denounced detentions

The WHO denounces in particular the “growing global phenomenon” of the detention of foreign nationals for reasons related to immigration or asylum. “Much has been written about the deleterious effects of detention in countries that do not limit the length of detention, including Australia, Canada, the United Kingdom and the United States,” reads the report. It also highlights the “failure” of detention centers to provide adequate health care, noting the “numerous reports detailing deaths, suicides and other cases of self-harm”.


Families of Central American asylum seekers line up to be moved to a U.S. Customs and Border Protection processing center in Granjeno, Texas.

The problems experienced by local populations – whether difficulties in accessing health care, costs, precarious jobs or unsuitable housing – are often exacerbated for migrants and refugees. Their socioeconomic status, discrimination, and language and cultural barriers add a layer of difficulty.

Age and climate change

Migration trends also point to growing challenges for host countries.

The number of people over the age of 50 displaced by humanitarian crises, for example, is growing rapidly. However, “the impact and needs of older people forcibly displaced by catastrophic events are little known, but evidence shows that older people are particularly exposed to such crises through a variety of determinants”, we read.

Host countries will also have to adapt to migration linked to climate change and natural disasters, which are likely to increase.

According to the report, in 2020, 30.7 million internally displaced people had to flee due to weather-related disasters, which also have an impact on health.

The mental health of migrants and refugees is also of concern to the WHO. A study among Syrian refugees shows that rates of psychological distress due to the COVID-19 quarantine, for example, were higher among them than among the rest of the population.

The pandemic has also highlighted the health risks that stem from the precarious situation of many migrants and refugees.


The solution to ensure better care for the health of migrants and refugees must be political, said WHO Director General Tedros Adhanom Ghebreyesus at a press conference, broadcast on the web on Wednesday.

A systematic assessment of the physical and mental conditions of newcomers should be implemented everywhere, added the Dr Waheed Arian, English doctor and campaigner invited to speak to the media by the WHO. “Don’t wait until they’re in a crisis, or they’re self-harming or having a heart attack or having some other problem,” he explained.

And that we have to pick up the damage in the ER, which leads to an overload of the health care system because we didn’t do the job right from the start.

The Dr Waheed Arian

Born in Afghanistan, he himself experienced the health problems linked to his family’s flight to escape the bombs. Cold, hunger and persistent cough. The dangerous crossing by donkey and horseback on a road to Pakistan, threatened by attacks. The family crammed into the tent in a refugee camp under the scorching sun, where transmission of tuberculosis and malaria was high. The return to the country, again shaken by violence.

His departure, at 15, alone, to the United Kingdom. Post-traumatic stress disorders. “Even though we were safe from the bombs, we weren’t physically safe, we weren’t socially safe, we weren’t mentally safe,” he said.

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