COVID-19 pandemic exposes gaps in European migrant health policies & accelerates need to build inclusive public-health and migrant integration systems
BRUSSELS — As elsewhere in the world, the COVID-19 pandemic has pushed European health-care systems to their limits. But the harms have not been felt evenly, with migrants and refugees having a higher risk of coronavirus infection and a mortality rate that is two to five times greater than for the native born. These disparities have exposed the gaps in how countries across Europe are approaching migrant health needs.
A new Migration Policy Institute Europe report, Healing the Gap: Building inclusive public-health and migrant integration systems in Europe, examines the health disparities and barriers that migrants face to accessing health services. It also examines new opportunities to tackle these inequities.
"The pandemic has deepened socioeconomic inequities that may further exacerbate the health inequities that migrants were already facing," writes MPI Europe Senior Policy Analyst Jasmijn Slootjes. "Not tackling these issues may come at a hefty price, as health inequities form a barrier to immigrant integration, contributing to a negative cycle of marginalization and poor health outcomes."
Driven by the pandemic, several European governments have been incorporating migrants into their health responses, though primarily focusing on treatment and service delivery rather than prevention. The public-health crisis also has kickstarted rapid, innovative responses by local organizations and service providers, including through leveraging digital tools and partnering with community leaders to reach the most vulnerable populations.
Civil-society organizations played a significant role in filling gaps in official policies and interventions, particularly early in the pandemic when governments were scrambling to respond. Danish civil-society organizations, for example, stepped up early to conduct outreach and provide information in multiple languages to diverse communities about reducing the spread of the virus. Some civil-society initiatives were later embraced and joined by government, for example joint door-to-door awareness campaigns in Portugal.
The report finds that much can be learned from the trends and policy responses that have emerged during the pandemic. Among them:
- There is increased awareness of the migrant integration–migrant health nexus and of root causes of health disparities. COVID-19 infection and mortality rates have clearly highlighted how disparities in employment, socioeconomic status, education and housing can cause health disparities. If stakeholders can use this increased awareness to reduce the root causes of health problems, the pandemic could be turned from an accelerator of inequalities into a springboard to a more inclusive society.
- It is key to take an intersectional approach to the mainstreaming of migrant health. The public-health crisis underscored the diversity of health vulnerabilities and needs within and across migrant groups. Mainstreaming migrant health would move away from a target-group approach and toward a needs-focused one that avoids treating migrants as a uniform group. Still, mainstreaming cannot become an excuse to ignore health challenges that are more common among migrants than the general population.
- There is a need to transition from emergency response to structural policy priorities. Effective long-term policy requires a comprehensive, dedicated approach to migrant health at European and national levels. This approach should promote coordination, harmonization and mutual learning across European Member States, as well as structural evaluation of what works.
The report is the latest from MPI Europe’s Integration Futures Working Group, a Robert Bosch Stiftung-supported project that brings together policymakers and experts, civil-society officials and private-sector leaders to create a platform for long-term strategic and creative thinking. This series will conclude next week with a report examining whether the social investment approach to welfare states in Europe could serve as a tool for post-pandemic recovery.
Read the migrant health report here: www.migrationpolicy.org/research/inclusive-public-health-migrant-integration-europe.
And watch a recent webinar featuring experts from European migration and public-health institutions discussing the post-pandemic opportunities to reshape public health: www.migrationpolicy.org/events/pandemic-reshape-europe-public-health-migrants.
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MPI Europe provides authoritative research and practical policy design to governmental and non-governmental stakeholders who seek more effective management of immigration, immigrant integration and asylum systems, as well as better outcomes for newcomers, families of immigrant background and receiving communities throughout Europe. MPI Europe also provides a forum for the exchange of information on migration and immigrant integration practices within the European Union and Europe more generally.