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IOM and UNHCR chiefs stress that COVID-19 underlines the urgent need for universal health coverage

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IOM and UNHCR chiefs stress that COVID-19 underlines the urgent need for universal health coverage

11 December 2020
Kenya. Refugees and host community access maternal health during COVID-19
A health worker attends to a 23-year-old Burundian refugee after she delivered her baby girl at Natukobenyo health clinic in Kalobeyei settlement, Kenya, October 2020.

Ahead of International Universal Health Coverage Day (12 December), as the world struggles to curb COVID-19, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi and the Director General of IOM António Vitorino, stressed that health services must be inclusive of all people, including migrants, refugees and internally displaced and stateless people, if we are to build robust systems that protect us all.

As the world gears up to distribute COVID-19 vaccines, IOM and UNHCR urge world leaders to seize this opportunity and ensure refugees and migrants are included in governments’ vaccine allocation and distribution plans and ongoing essential health services. In these times of pandemic and beyond, the two organizations commit to continue strengthening their collaboration and stand ready to support governments in their efforts to make health care available for all, through universal health coverage, a reality.

"Access to health is a fundamental right, but too often still, those who need it the most – including migrants and forcibly displaced persons – are left out,” said IOM Director General António Vitorino. “If 2020 has taught us something, it is that ill health is a universal issue that does not distinguish based on nationality; so, to be truly effective, neither should our health coverage, including in upcoming COVID-19 vaccination efforts.”

Migrants and forcibly displaced persons often contend with poor living and working conditions, face discrimination or exploitation, or do not benefit from social protections. Yet, to date, IOM estimates that fewer than one in two countries (43%) provide access to health services to all migrants, regardless of their legal status. For decades, in more than 100 countries, IOM, in close coordination with the World Health Organization (WHO) and other partners have been working with Governments and communities to expand migrants’ equitable access to quality health services without financial burden and ensure that internally displaced persons also have access to basic health services.

“It is critical that vulnerable populations on the move, including refugees and migrants, are not left behind by public health responses. The COVID-19 pandemic shows in no uncertain terms that universal health coverage has never been more relevant,” said UN High Commissioner for Refugees Filippo Grandi. “With global forced displacement at record levels, we need greater inclusion and support for the world’s refugees and communities hosting them.”

According to UNHCR’s latest data, global forced displacement crossed the 80 million mark at mid-2020, more than 50 million of whom are forcibly displaced within their countries’ borders. So far, governments, UNHCR, and other aid agencies have helped keep transmission rates among refugees at similar levels as those in host communities. Full inclusion of migrants and forcibly displaced persons in the entire spectrum of responses to the pandemic – from preparedness, to health responses, access to vaccines and social safety nets – is a lifeline for people forced to flee.

Universal health coverage, a key aim of the 2030 Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs), is based on the principle that everyone everywhere should have access to quality essential health services without being exposed to financial hardship.

Yet, refugees and migrants remain too often excluded from health systems. The challenges they face in accessing health care, described in the latest UHC2030 Partnership report on the State of Universal Health Coverage, include a lack of inclusive policies, language barriers, or prohibitive costs. This is particularly the case in low- and middle-income countries – where more than 85 per cent of the world’s refugees live, and where the majority of the new internal displacement due to conflict takes place – which are struggling to meet the health needs of their own populations.


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