How can we realise the right to health for asylum seekers?

by Rosie Wallbank, refugee and asylum lead

Published: 20 Jun 2018

Wednesday 20 June marks the 20th World Refugee Day, a day held every year to commemorate the strength, courage and perseverance of millions of refugees.

We have a rich and long-standing tradition of offering refuge and safe haven to those in most need.

This is why we were pleased to hear Sajid Javid’s commitment to review some immigration policies, with a view to building a fairer and more compassionate immigration system.

We welcome further information on plans to remove barriers experienced by refugees and asylum seekers in accessing public services and integrating into our communities.

They are some of the most vulnerable people in our society, often dealing with trauma, and because of past experience they are likely to have specific health needs when trying to find sanctuary in a new country.

The right to health

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights everyone in the UK, including asylum seekers and refugees, has the right to the highest possible standard of physical and mental health.

But this right is not always realised in practice.

This is why, over the next few months, we will be:

  • highlighting the rights and entitlements to healthcare for asylum seekers, and making sure this knowledge is transferred to healthcare professionals
  • sharing the experiences of asylum seekers and refused asylum seekers accessing healthcare in England, Scotland and Wales
  • working with a range of organisations to identify areas for improvement, and push for these improvements to be made
  • telling the stories of people who have sought sanctuary in Wales highlighting their strength, hopes and dreams

Some of the main barriers for asylum seekers in accessing healthcare are already well-known. These include difficulties in registering with GPs or fear about being charged for healthcare services.

All asylum seekers and their dependents can access healthcare free of charge

In actual fact, the situation for asylum seekers accessing healthcare should be quite simple in that all asylum seekers and their dependents can access healthcare free of charge.

Asylum seekers do not need proof of identity or address to register with a doctor. If the surgery is accepting new patients, anyone living in the area the surgery covers can register.

What’s more, everyone in England, Scotland and Wales – whatever their immigration status – can access primary healthcare free of charge (such as GP services and emergency care at A&E).

Language is another well-known barrier.

This is why the use of interpreters and translation is so fundamental to ensuring asylum seekers and refugees are able to fully access healthcare.

Investing in integration

However, while translation and interpretation support is vital for healthcare treatment, we also need to look beyond these immediate requirements.

For the government to achieve its vision on integrated communities, integration must begin the day refugees and asylum seekers arrive in England, in line with the other nations of Great Britain. This includes specific language support and improved access to core public services, as we set out in our response to the integrated communities green paper (PDF).

The stakes for not investing in integration from the beginning are high.

Find out more about our work

For further information on our work around asylum seekers and healthcare, please email Rosie Wallbank.