UN tackles migrant health at Madrid conference

3 March 2010

The well-being of nearly one billion migrant workers is made worse by poor access to health care, poverty and exploitative work conditions, according to the United Nations health agency which kicked off a conference on the issue today in Madrid.

Some 100 officials, academics and experts gathered at the three-day Global Consultation on Migrant Health, organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the Government of Spain, which holds the rotating European Union presidency.

“Migration is one of the main social determinants of health in the 21st Century. The health of migrants is a central element for social cohesion for contemporary societies,” said Daniel Lopez Acuna, the Director of Strategy, Policy and Resource Management at WHO’s Health Action in Crisis Cluster.

While many of the approximately 214 million international migrants and 740 million internal migrants worldwide are healthy, some – particularly undocumented migrants, people forced to migrate due to natural or man-made disasters, and victims of trafficking – are often exploited and suffer physical and mental abuse.

“The right to health applies to all migrants, irrespective of their migratory status,” said Davide Mosca, Director of the Migration Health Department at IOM.

“We therefore need to define minimum standards of access to health care based on fundamental human rights and sound public health policies and practices. This requires strong partnerships across sectors and between countries where migrants leave from, transit through or are received,” Mr. Mosca added.

According to WHO, many factors limit migrants’ access to health services, including stigma, discrimination, social exclusion, language and cultural differences, separation from family and socio-cultural norms, and financial and administrative hurdles.

The Madrid Consultation aims to address these challenges and to overcome obstacles such as the ability to generate comparable global data on the health of migrants and to identify policies and legislation that advance their health.

“Access of migrants to health care has become of paramount importance to rights-based health systems and to public efforts aimed at reducing health inequities,” said Mr. Lopez.

In December, UN High Commissioner for Human Rights Navi Pillay urged Member States to provide health care to all migrant children as part of a child rights-based approach to migration laws, policies and programmes.

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