Health Implications of the Refugees’ crisis

The arrival of refugees in Europe over the last year presents the EU and its Member States with numerous challenges. One of them is a pressing need to address the resulting public health consequences.

Health threat to EU residents?

Concerns have been raised in the media that migrants could bring infectious diseases into Europe. Two written questions posed by right-wing French MEPs (ENF) to the European Commission stated that “the Commission cannot deny that that the influx of migrants into the EU has resulted in higher health risks for Europeans”. They further urged the European Commission to “confirm mass immigration poses a significant risk to public health”.

Fortunately, the European Parliament, the European Commission and the WHO have consistently rejected this paranoia, stating that “migrants do not pose any greater threat to public health than international travellers” (Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe), and that in fact it is the migrants’ health which is at risk, “not the health of EU citizens” (Martin Seychell, Deputy Director-General of the Commission’s Directorate-General for Health and Food Safety).

In line with this, a report from the European Centre for Disease Prevention and Control (ECDC) published last November, established that the risk to European residents of being affected by outbreaks occurring among refugee populations “remains extremely low”. It argued that the hygiene levels, overcrowding and limited access to clean water responsible for transmission of communicable diseases “are specific to the reception facilities in which they are occurring”.

Addressing health issues amongst refugees: a joint approach?

The potential health threat posed by migrants bringing possible epidemics to EU residents seems thus a non-sensical debate. What is at stake is rather the EU and Members States’ capacities to adequately address healthcare needs of refugees and other migrants in the short and longer term.

“The risk to refugees contracting communicable diseases has increased because of overcrowding at reception facilities, and the consequent compromising of hygiene and sanitation” says the ECDC report. EU countries observing an influx of refugees “are recommended to assess their overall preparedness and response capacity to infectious health threats”, it concludes.

But can we rely on Member States to address heath threats effectively? Shouldn’t the EU play a stronger role here?

So far, the EU’s response to managing health implications of the migrants’ crisis has been to unblock funds to support EU MS under particular migratory pressure in their response to health-related challenges.

No doubt these projects will be useful to put in place mechanisms for health assessments, referral systems, collection and transfer of data including between transition and destination countries. However, these measures are limited, largely “reactive” and leave numerous questions unanswered:

How will Members States ensure coordination of their responses as it relates to access to healthcare for migrants (which currently varies from country to country)? What cooperation mechanisms will they use to address cross-border health threats? How do Member States plan to act beyond the emergency with regards to aiding migrants throughout all phases of migration, including a healthy integration into the host society?

In the absence of a common health and asylum policy, there is little basis for an integrated EU response to manage the health aspects of the migrants’ crisis. Once again, the crisis demonstrates that we need more EU, and not the other way round, as some conservatisms have tried to imply in the last months.


Enza Fragapane

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