WHO, UNICEF and UNHCR call for equitable access to vaccines for refugees and migrants

Timely immunization to prevent outbreaks of vaccine-preventable diseases is an important part of the public health response to the unprecedented influx of refugees, asylum seekers and migrants to countries of the WHO European Region. To clarify the role of national immunization programmes in protecting all populations within their borders, WHO, the United Nation's Children's Fund (UNICEF) and the United Nations Refugee Agency (UNHCR) have issued joint guidance outlining general principles on vaccination of refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants in the WHO European Region.

Children most at risk

WHO, UNICEF and UNHCR underline that refugees, asylum-seekers and migrants should have non-discriminatory and equitable access to health care services, including vaccines, irrespective of their legal status. Most refugees and migrants arriving in Europe are coming from Middle Eastern countries where vaccines are widely accepted and coverage has been historically high – so those most at risk of acquiring vaccine-preventable diseases circulating in the European Region are young children who are not fully vaccinated because vaccination programmes in their home countries have been interrupted by civil unrest and war. 

Border crossings

The United Nations agencies do not recommend vaccination at border crossings unless there is an outbreak of a vaccine-preventable disease in the host or transit country. Instead they recommend that refugees and migrants should be vaccinated without unnecessary delay according to the national immunization schedules of the country where they are envisioned to reside for more than a week. Since immunization is a health intervention requiring a continuum of follow-up until the full schedule is completed, this requires cooperation among the countries of origin, transit and destination.