Health Care, Support for Migrants is a Global Responsibility
October 25, 2016
Health and migration experts are calling for policies that support and integrate the flood of displaced people worldwide, but many countries instead are becoming more restrictive. That trend, they said, threatens not only the future of those on the move, but also potentially the health and prosperity of receiving countries.
“Migrant health is in the national interest,” William Lacy Swing, Director-General of the International Organization for Migration, said at the World Health Summit in Berlin this month. Ensuring migrants are healthy and well educated reduces health threats for the entire population and creates a stronger workforce.
Swing praised progress made at the UN in September toward a global compact that will outline shared responsibility for refugees, although he noted it will take two years to negotiate. Other actions are less favorable, including recent efforts by European leaders to increase deportations. Florian Westphal, managing director of Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) Germany, termed as “cynical” an agreement reached earlier this year between the European Union (EU) and Turkey to return asylum seekers. Noting the agreement’s stated goal was to curtail illegal immigration, he said there are practically no legal routes for people seeking refuge in Europe. To protest the agreement, MSF has stopped taking funds from the EU, Westphal said.
With no end in sight to the current migrant flow, Swing said rather than finding a solution to the situation, policy makers need to implement ways to manage it. “We need to change the discourse,” he said. Rather than stoking fears, leaders need to promote diversity and stress the positive contributions migrants have made to their adopted countries.
But the situation is complex and numbers are staggering. There currently are one billion migrants worldwide, including 65 million who have been forced from their homes. The majority of the 21 million refugees--migrants forced to cross country borders--are being housed in developing countries which often are struggling with fragility and lack of resources. But Europe also is considered to be in a migration crisis as the number of people fleeing there totals 1.3 million since the beginning of 2015. The influx coupled with fear generated by terrorist attacks in France and Belgium is inflaming anti-immigration sentiment in many countries and generating questions about Europe’s security capabilities and its ability to effectively screen newcomers. The June Brexit vote in Britain is largely attributed to immigration issues there and German Prime Minister Angela Merkel is facing strong opposition to her initial open-door policy for asylum seekers.
Speakers at the World Health Summit urged greater involvement of academics and civil society in creating political pressure for humane resettlement. In addition, former Danish Prime Minister Helle Thorning-Schmidt, now CEO with Save the Children International, cited increased development aid to low-income countries as a way to improve living conditions there and thus slow the exodus.
How the world deals with this wave of displacement will be a defining issue of our times, “shaping our political agenda and our policies,” said Yves Daccord of the International Committee of the Red Cross, and even political careers. While not facing migration on the same scale as Europe, the subject remains a fiercely divisive issue in the United States, as reflected in the current presidential race. Despite opposition from some quarters, President Obama remains proactive in encouraging resettlement of Syrians and other refugees to the U.S. He also is playing a leading role in developing a global response to migration as shown in his hosting of the Leaders’ Summit on Refugees in September. The next President will also have to take a courageous stand to find the right balance between protecting the rights of refugees while ensuring security and aiding the rest of the world to do likewise.