WHO/Europe supports Member States in strengthening public health evidence-informed policies for refugees and migrants

Evidence-based public health measures to mitigate the health implications of migration could save a significant number of lives and reduce suffering and ill health.

Dr Zsuzsanna Jakab, WHO Regional Director for Europe

In response to the current refugee and migrant crisis, WHO/Europe has published 3 new reports on the public health aspects of migration and health. The Health Evidence Network (HEN) reports summarize the available research and evidence to help Member States adapt and develop evidence-informed policies as a response to the diverse health needs of undocumented migrants, labour migrants, asylum seekers and refugees.

The reports identify several areas of concern, especially in mental and maternal health. Poor outcomes in both areas suggest that needs are not being met. Good demographic and health data concerning refugees and migrants are also lacking. Most sources of evidence consider a specific issue, such as communicable diseases, rather than general health.

The reports propose certain considerations.

  • Improve access to health services for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers by removing system barriers and giving practical help, for example, with transport or language.
  • Provide full health coverage for pregnant women and for children regardless of immigration status.
  • Reconsider entitlement to healthcare for undocumented migrants, who may not currently be eligible.
  • Provide interpreters and health information materials in relevant languages.
  • Improve communication on specific health topics and how to access the health system, making full use of social networks, as well as usual channels.
  • Support and train healthcare workers to create a culturally sensitive health system.
  • Collect data on undocumented migrants' health and make it available to the scientific community and policy-makers in order to improve future care.

Evidence also indicates that undocumented migrants mostly only have access to emergency care across the WHO European Region. Even when fully entitled to care, labour migrants and undocumented migrants face barriers, such as language and lack of understanding of how the system works, in accessing health services.

Identifying region-wide trends is difficult due to the lack of a single set of data and substantial variations from country to country. Effective measures also require co-operation between countries of origin, transit and destination, often extending well beyond the boundaries of the Region.


HEN is an information service for public health decision-makers in the Region, initiated and coordinated by WHO/Europe. It provides a single point of access to the best available public health evidence and information, and supports the decision-making process. HEN produces up‑to‑date summaries highlighting what is known, indicates gaps in evidence and information, and underscores key areas of debate, including trends and policy options.

The WHO/Europe project Public Health Aspects of Migration in Europe (PHAME) was created in 2012 with the financial support of the Ministry of Health of Italy. Its aim is to support Member States to strengthen the health sector's preparedness and capacity to better address the public health impact and health needs of large-scale arrivals of refugees and migrants.

At the 5th meeting of the WHO European Advisory Committee on Health Research (EACHR) in July 2014, EACHR agreed to create a subcommittee on migration and health to review the PHAME strategic framework and strengthen the evidence available in this area. EACHR also recommended that these 3 reports be produced in collaboration between PHAME and HEN.