Greece set to tackle migration challenges with proactive reforms

With over 62 000 refugees and migrants stranded in Greece, the need is imminent for effective health care reform that addresses the health needs of migrant populations. On 28 March 2017 in Athens, the Ministry of Health of Greece hosted a policy dialogue in cooperation with WHO/Europe to initiate its collaborative health care reform programme.

The policy dialogue gave specific and substantial attention to vulnerable and crisis-affected populations, including migrants journeying into and remaining in Greece. It served as a platform to generate consensus regarding the need for a new public health strategy – one that effectively addresses these 21st century public health challenges in the country and aligns with the United Nations Sustainable Development Goals and WHO/Europe’s Health 2020 policy framework.

Migrant health and well-being a priority

The policy dialogue adopted a multisectoral, open and collaborative approach to discussions on strengthening public health through action on refugee and migrant health. This served to:

  • clarify public health challenges related to migrants;
  • introduce a framework for addressing the needs of migrants, aligned with the Strategy and action plan for refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region; and
  • identify structural challenges facing current public health services.

In her introductory statement, Dr Piroska Ostlin, Director of the Division of Policy and Governance for Health and Well-being, highlighted WHO/Europe’s intensive work in the area of migration and health and expressed the importance of viewing the issue not as a problem, but rather as an opportunity.

Lessons learned, shared experiences and emerging tools for support

The session on migrant health included shared experiences on the state of migration in both Italy and Greece, 2 countries in the Region facing large-scale migration. Experts from both nations provided historical details, trends and lessons learned to generate a common understanding of the situation and to work towards new solutions.

Dr Santino Severoni, Coordinator of WHO/Europe’s Public Health and Migration Programme, conveyed the immediate need to define the best strategy for accommodating mobile populations, and to adopt new approaches towards their integration into societies. Referencing the Strategy and action plan for refugee and migrant health in the WHO European Region, Dr Severoni shared new initiatives to support Member States and promote the exchange of knowledge, information and good practices.

Among these new initiatives is the first-of-its-kind European Knowledge Hub on Health and Migration. This multistakeholder platform will bridge the existing gap between science, policy and practice in the area of migration and health to meet the needs of countries such as Greece facing large influxes of migrant populations.

Immunization a vital component of migrant health

Since 2016, Greece has worked to proactively protect the migrant population from the adversity of vaccine-preventable diseases by organizing several mass vaccination campaigns. These campaigns have covered the refugee and migrant populations in reception centres. Over 30 000 doses of vaccines were provided in 2016 alone, protecting populations from 10 diseases including polio, measles and pertussis. WHO also donated vaccination cards to record the vaccines administered during the campaign. These cards allow health care providers to document and families to track the vaccination status of each child.

The reported vaccination coverage in the countries of origin of the refugees and migrants has traditionally been high. Those most at risk are young children who have not yet been vaccinated due to vaccination programmes in their home countries being interrupted by civil unrest and war.

Ensuring equitable access to vaccination, including for refugee and migrant populations, is one of the key objectives of the European Vaccine Action Plan 2015–2020. This entails strengthening national and regional health systems to ensure they adhere to the principles of equity, solidarity and human rights.

Migrant reform on the way

The Ministry of Health of Greece is paving the way for future initiatives that will harness the opportunities provided by migrant populations. This involves ensuring migrants’ integration into the health system as well as the adoption of holistic health policies. WHO/Europe will continue to collaborate with affected countries, and anticipates progress across the Region in how countries welcome, care for and integrate mobile populations into their cultural fabric.