Health is a human right for refugees, too

Although media coverage of refugees seeking safety in Europe has waned in the recent months, the hardships faced by them have not. A new report shares that worldwide displacement has hit levels unprecedented on record published by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has stated. This means that now, “one in every 122 humans is now either a refugee, internally displaced, or seeking asylum”. With half of these refugees being children, the need for comprehensive aid is crucial.

The 1951 Refugee Convention, adopted by the United Nations General Assembly on the 28th of July, 1951 and entered into force on the 22nd of April, 1954, states that “the Contracting States shall accord to refugees treatment as favourable as possible, and, in any event, not less favourable than that accorded to aliens generally in the same circumstances”. The Convention defines a refugee as someone who “is outside his or her country of nationality or habitual residence; has a well founded fear of persecution because of his/her race, religion, nationality, membership in a particular social group or political opinion” (ibid). Importantly, this is different from the term “migrant” which media sources have used interchangeably with “refugee”.  The situations they allude to are massively different. Migrants refer to anyone moving from one country to another, and may include individuals well-off seeking better opportunities. Hungary, Turkey, and Greece are all state parties to the 1951 Convention, and thus have the responsibility to uphold the provisions set forth in the legal instrument to which they have demonstrated their allegiance. The rights accorded to refugees include the right to housing (Article 4), the right to education (Article 22), and the right to public relief and assistance (Article 23)”.

This public relief and assistance importantly includes the right to “access health services equivalent to that of the host population, while everyone has the right under international law to the highest standards of physical and mental health”. This is especially critical for women and children, vulnerable populations in the midst of the mass movement of displaced peoples. Although the majority of refugees and migrants entering Europe are not women, 13% are, and 4,200 of these women are likely to be pregnant, and 1,400 are at risk of sexual violence.  The United Nations Population Fund (UNFPA) plans to distribute 70,000 dignity kits to women along the Balkans route to provide basic hygiene and healthcare items, and “mobile clinics will be set up at strategic points, staffed with gynaecologists and nurses along with materials for safe-deliveries and prevention of HIV and sexually transmitted diseases”. While the UNFPA will also “boost the capacity of governments and civil society groups in the affected countries to provide quality health services for women and to prevent and manage sexual and gender-based violence,” a large part of the responsibility to ensure the health of the refugee population rests on the shoulders of the hosting countries. In light of the refugee rights violations in Hungary, the need for accountability of these nations is critical. Furthermore, the need to stem the conflicts in the countries from which people are fleeing is of utmost importance. Officials and analysts say that “sharp falls in international funding from United Nations countries,” are largely to blame for the “deterioration of the conditions that Syrians face in Lebanon, Jordan and Turkey”.health-care

While the important political discourse regarding the shared responsibility of refugee aid continues, let us not forget that each day the basic human rights of these people must not be overlooked. The right to the highest standard of healthcare is among these universal rights and the responsibility of nations, whether they are members of the 1951 Refugee Convention or not, to provide this to asylum seekers is a matter of both legal integrity and moral. 

Written by: Prima Manandhar-Sasak


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