WHO Summer School on Refugee and Migrant Health: sharing experiences and best practices

WHO/Francesco Bellina

Members of the Italian Coast Guard demonstrate search and rescue procedures in a simulation exercise for Summer School participants.

The second annual WHO Summer School on Refugee and Migrant Health recently brought together more than 80 participants from nearly 20 countries around the globe to exchange experiences and best practices related to improving the health and well-being of migrants and refugees.

The participants came from European countries as well as North and South America, Africa, and East Asia. They were guided by a faculty of 35 leading experts in the field during the week-long event held in Palermo, Italy, on 24–28 September 2018.

Trends and health conditions

Throughout the week, discussions and workshops focused on trends of migration and the health issues that today’s migrants and refugees often face. These groups differ from the migrants and refugees of previous decades in 3 significant ways. They are more likely to:

  • be older adults;
  • have chronic conditions (for example, high blood pressure, heart disease, diabetes or cancer); and
  • reside in an urban setting instead of a rural camp.

This requires different health approaches than in the past. Migrants and refugees with chronic conditions often experience gaps in their treatment during their journey. Without treatment, their risk of serious complications from their conditions is 2–3 times higher. It is therefore critical that they restart treatment as soon as possible.

Country experiences

Summer School participants also explored experiences from several of the countries in the WHO European Region that have received significant numbers of refugees and migrants.


Greece currently hosts more than 60 000 refugees and migrants, and about 80 more arrive every day. Through a programme called PHILOS (“friend”), the Government provides health care to refugees. This has included more than 45 000 vaccinations given at entry points and to children attending school.


Midweek, Summer School participants travelled to Trapani, Sicily, for a site visit to the Italian Coast Guard centre there. This is where about 1500 migrants arrived in the first 6 months of 2018. The day included a search and rescue simulation exercise, a demonstration of migrant health assessment, and visits to an unaccompanied minor reception centre.

Italy has served as one of the main points of entry to Europe for refugees and migrants. Their approach includes immediate triage for infectious diseases or urgent injuries when the migrants and refugees arrive, and transfer of patients to health-care facilities if needed. Health-care delivery continues in different stages as the migrants are processed into the country.


Turkey now hosts 3.5 million Syrian refugees – the largest population of refugees in the world. The large influx initially strained Turkey’s health system, but then WHO, the Government of Turkey and other partners tapped a new resource. They created a programme to bring Syrian health workers among the refugees into the Turkish health systems to provide care to fellow refugees. This not only helped alleviate the strain on the Turkish health system and addressed the barriers of language and culture – it also boosted the morale of the health-worker refugees, many of whom thought they would never practice medicine again.

Looking ahead

Throughout the week, nearly every speaker reinforced the message that migration is here to stay. It is a major social, political and public health challenge, and policy-makers will need to develop policies that address the health needs of migrants independently from their legal status.