Migration around the globe is a phenomenon that has taken place for as long as humans have been around. As of 2011, there are about 214 million international migrants worldwide, 49 percent of whom are women. In Africa alone, there were approximately 19.3 million migrants in 2010.
Despite the fact that 1 in 33 persons in the world today is a migrant, we seem to live in a time where migration is usually seen under a negative light. Migrants are often seen as burdensome and are usually confronted with ethnocentric views that fail to realize their contributions to society as a whole.
Migration happens for several reasons. In some cases, people resettle in a different country because of pull forces in the country of destination such as education or work. Many countries are increasingly relying on immigration as a means of coping with domestic shortages of professionals in certain fields. People in this category are more likely to enter the destination countries as documented immigrants. As a result, they are more likely to have access to their new country’s resources and services. But, most importantly, the choice of moving to a new country is one they make willingly.
Migration also happens due to push forces in the country of origin. Conflict and war, climate change and environmental degradation, and natural disasters push millions of people away from their homes every year. Those affected by these changes are then forced to resettle in a new nation.
It is so difficult to be a documented immigrant in a foreign country that it is frightening to envision the realities of those who have to live in the shadows due to their lack of documentation.
For the second group of migrants – the ones pushed out of their home countries –, life in the new country has the potential to be as challenging as it was in their country of origin. In addition to the hardships experienced and the challenges of starting a new life in a new place, migrants are also more likely to have pre-existing health conditions, lack immunity to existing emerging diseases, suffer from emotional stress, and live and work in suboptimal conditions that put them at higher risk to a variety of diseases and conditions.
What resources are available to these people during these difficult times?
What will they do if they get sick?
The sad truth is that many migrants cannot access health care in their new countries. New immigrants face significant barriers in accessing health care: language barriers, uninsured status and lack of knowledge about the way the public health system works.
Language can be the main barrier faced by migrants when seeking healthcare in a new country. For some immigrants it might be virtually impossible to find a healthcare provider that speaks their language and, in the case of some languages such as Pulaar, Wolof, Mandingo, and Soninke, there will be no one at the language bank who can help with translation.
Lack of cultural awareness can sometimes trump even the ability to communicate through words. For example, out of those migrants who were assisted by an interpreter when seeking medical care in the United States, only 70 percent fully understood what the doctor was saying. Diseases and ailments are interpreted differently around the world. Because people feel misunderstood or judged, they might choose to bypass a visit to the doctor’s office when needed.
As can be expected, these obstacles lead to lower overall health in migrant populations around the world.
Interestingly enough, migrants are often blamed for putting strain on social services such as the medical system. In reality, migrants are less likely to seek medical attention or to fully take advantage of the resources available to them. In the United States, migrants contribute more taxes than the average person, and are less likely than the average person to utilize public services like healthcare clinics.
The picture is ever grimmer for those migrants who have been detained and are now facing deportation.
In the United States, immigrants can be detained in county jails for periods exceeding a month. These facilities were not created to house long-term prisoners and, therefore, are not equipped for it. As a result, detainees may end up confined to a small cell, have access to no exercise, and be fed a diet low in nutrients such as hot dogs.
In South Africa, the Lindela Detention Centre houses undocumented immigrants who are pending deportation. Despite previous reports denouncing substandard conditions in the detention facility, foreigners detained in Lindela are housed in overcrowded rooms, denied access to medical care, and provided insufficient food.
In the French-administered island of Mayotte, the Pamandzi facility houses migrants awaiting deportation. This facility only has 3 cells and 4 showers. Despite its size, it has admitted to detaining up to 220 migrants including children despite an unofficial maximum capacity of 60. In this detention facility, migrants were forced to sit, eat, and sleep on the floor and they had no access to health care.
Fortunately, not all is bad news. Organizations such as the International Organization for Migration are working to implement programs and allocate funds to improve the care available to migrants in different countries across the world. Their model advocates for a prevention model that identifies the needs of the community in order to provide relevant services to migrants in need.
The truth is that receiving societies have a moral obligation to ensure migrants’ access to healthcare according to international human rights principles, regardless of their immigration status. The international standards are in place, now it is up to the receiving countries to make sure that migrant rights are respected regardless of their immigration status, and up to individual to dispel the myths that envelop migrants.