Mobilising healthcare professionals

Mobilising healthcare professionals


Written by: Frances Webber

A recent conference organised by Médecins du Monde UK (MdM) highlighted the campaign to provide access to healthcare for refused asylum seekers and undocumented migrants.

The obstacles faced by undocumented migrants and asylum seekers in obtaining access to health care were discussed by around seventy doctors and other healthcare professionals, lawyers and others at the annual conference of Médecins du Monde UK on 21 March 2009. Although in theory, primary health care remains free to all at the point of need, irrespective of immigration status [1], in practice, the conference heard, asylum seekers are frequently prevented from registering with GPs’ practices by a multitude of difficulties. Surgeries may require proof of identity, which may be impossible for someone who has had to surrender his/her passport but has not yet been issued with any identifying document, or for an undocumented migrant. Proof of address is commonly sought, but is impossible to produce for someone without an address, such as a refused asylum seeker who has been evicted from an asylum hostel. But these are potentially the very people whose need of GP services is greatest. Even if these hurdles are overcome (for example, by offering letters from a charity confirming identity and a temporary address), reception staff and GPs themselves may mistakenly believe that they cannot provide medical care because of the patient’s immigration status. Worse, the conference was told that Department of Health officials from the counter-fraud unit are contacting GPs when they see applications for registration from undocumented migrants or refused asylum seekers, and are pressurising doctors not to register them. This worrying development appears to be an abuse of anti-fraud powers, which are designed to prevent doctors from registering imaginary patients, and seems to be used as a way of forcing doctors into becoming agents of immigration control.

These developments are fuelled by the myth of ‘health tourism’ and by the culture of suspicion and disbelief surrounding asylum seekers, the conference heard. Those attending the conference showed their determination to resist such government intrusion on their Hippocratic obligations to their patients. They heard Helen Bamber give a moving account of the patients she and medical volunteers see at the Helen Bamber Foundation (HBF), and previously at the Medical Foundation which she founded, and of the work of the Averroes Project, which, like MdM’s Project London, provides health care to undocumented migrants and refused asylum seekers. However, as the audience heard, MdM aims to see clients only once. This is not primarily because of lack of resources (although this is a problem); the main aim of their team of doctors and lawyers is to obtain registration for their clients with local GPs.

Participants identified the need for research on the current availability of health care to migrants, and on the consequences of increasing access and of not providing care, as a key action point to help persuade policy-makers of the need to maintain and extend access to health care. They also called for better co-ordination among pressure groups to make the campaign more effective. Neil Gerrard MP, talked of the need to build broad alliances among professionals, faith groups, trades unions and anti-racist and human rights campaigners.

In their work, MdM, along with groups such as Medical Justice, Averroes, HBF and the Medical Foundation all reflect the founding aims and the best traditions of the NHS, which governments of all political persuasions have sought to subvert since the first NHS charging regulations in 1987. The message of this conference was: asylum seekers and undocumented migrants are not ‘health tourists’, and the right to health is a basic human right which should not be made dependent on immigration status.

Related links

Médecins du Monde


Medical Justice

The Helen Bamber Foundation

The Medical Foundation for the Care of Victims of Torture (MF)

Read an IRR News Story on: Important legal ruling for refused asylum seekers

[1] In 2004, the Department of Health announced proposals to remove rights to primary (GP) health care from refused asylum seekers and undocumented migrants. The proposals were fought by a campaign which brought together GPs and other health professionals, refugee and migrant groups and lawyers. As a result of the campaign, implementation of the proposals has been deferred.

The Institute of Race Relations is precluded from expressing a corporate view: any opinions expressed are therefore those of the authors.

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