Georg Röggla: Health and migration

georg_rogglaI attended a remarkable reception with a focus on health and migration at the UK embassy in Vienna last week.

The ambassador Susan le Jeune d’Allegeershecque shared her personal experiences of when the wave of refugees reached the eastern Austrian border in 2015. She had seen completely exhausted and traumatised children and a pregnant woman whose waters had broken hours ago. This woman had only just reached the border because she wanted to give birth to her baby in Austria.

The ambassador then gave the floor to Professor Helmut Brand, professor of European public health and head of the Department of International Health at Maastricht University, the Netherlands. He said, “We know quite a lot about health and migration. We don’t know all. But we definitely know enough to take political decisions.” He then elaborated on the following issues:

• Migrants are nearly always healthier than the people in the country they immigrate to.
• Refugees don’t spread infectious diseases.
• The health status of refugees quickly adjusts to the general population.
• Migrants are no burden for the healthcare system if the overall integration process is successful.
• Migrants have to actively take part in the integration process.
• The health status of migrants always mirrors the state of the integration process.
• Countries have to ensure their health system fits the needs of refugees and that access to the system is easily possible.
• The assistance of civil society is important.
• All political activities with the intention to improve integration need support.

His speech was followed by a vivid debate. The dynamics of public opinion on migration have been volatile in Austria, from an initial massive wave of solidarity and support for refugees to hostile outbursts in the near past. I commend the UK embassy and Prof Brand for these helpful statements on health and migration, particularly in light of the heated feelings around the refugee crisis in Europe at the moment.

Georg Röggla is an associate editor with The BMJ.