How the World Health Organization and the World Can Promote the Health of Vulnerable Refugees and Migrants: Part I – History of Actions Taken

WHO headquarters in Geneva, Switzerland. Photo Credit: Elizabeth Montgomery Collins.

In 2017, concerns over immigrant health moved World Health Organization (WHO) Member States to request that the WHO Director-General develop a framework for Member States, in consultation with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), the International Organization for Migration (IOM), and Member States themselves, to meet the healthcare needs of refugees and migrants in accordance with the New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants.  Later that year, the Member States requested in resolution WHA70.15 that a Global Action Plan be prepared for the Seventy-second World Health Assembly (WHA72) in May 2019.

In response to this, the Director-General released his report, Promoting the health of refugees and migrants draft global action plan, 2019-2023 (the Global Action Plan), in early 2019 at the 144th session of the Executive Board (EB144) at WHO headquarters.

Attempts to address the health of vulnerable migrants and refugees are not new to the international community. See some notable moments over the last century below:

  • The 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, for example, stipulates that “refugees should not be refouled, or returned, to a country where he or she fears persecution” and that the Contracting States “shall accord to refugees lawfully staying in their territory the same treatment with respect to public relief and assistance as is accorded to their nationals”, which includes health care, according to UNHCR and UNICEF.
  • The United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child, which came into force in 1990, provides that each child has “the right to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of health” and the UNHCR has clearly stated that “refugees should have access to medical care, schooling and the right to work”.
  • The Cartagena Declaration on Refugees, signed in 1984, improved regional cooperation between countries and extended the definition of refugees to include “persons who have fled their country because their lives, security or freedom have been threatened by generalized violence, foreign aggression, internal conflicts, massive violation of human rights or other circumstances which have seriously disturbed public order”, and allows for disease, malnourishment and other causes of displacement to be considered when designating refugee status.
  • The Organization of African Unity (OAU) Convention Governing the Specific Aspects of Refugee Problems in Africa (known as the 1969 Refugee Convention) prohibits discrimination against refugees on the additional grounds of membership of a particular social group, nationality, or political opinion and also contains suggestions for burden- and responsibility-sharing, solidarity, and cooperation between the Member States, such as regional resettlement and financial support.
  • WHO Member States endorsed a resolution on the health of migrants (WHA61.17) during the World Health Assembly in 2008.
  • The United Nations General Assembly (UNGA) Declaration of the High-Level Dialogue on International Migration and Development was adopted as a Resolution in 2013 and the UNHCR’s Global Compact on Refugees (GCR) was affirmed in 2018 by the UNGA.

Meanwhile, the world anxiously awaits to see if revisions of the Global Action Plan (Promoting the health of refugees and migrants draft global action plan, 2019-2023) will be accepted at the Seventy-second World Health Assembly (WHA72) May 20-28, 2019 in Geneva, Switzerland.

This blog post was written by Elizabeth Montgomery Collins, MD, MPH, DTM. Dr. Collins is a member of the Global Health Council’s President’s Advisory Council and has served on several occasions as an individual delegate to the World Health Organization Executive Board meetings and the World Health Assembly.

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