Global leaders meet in Sri Lanka to ‘reset’ migrant health agenda

IOM and Zeta Beta Mu conducted a medical outreach in Cuartero, Capiz in the aftermath of Typhoon Haiyan in May 2014. (Credit: Alan Motus / IOM / Flickr)

Global health leaders are gathering in Colombo, Sri Lanka, today to “reset the international agenda on migrant health.”

Organized by the World Health Organization (WHO), the U.N. International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the government of Sri Lanka, the 2nd Global Consultation on Migrant Health brings together representatives from more than 40 countries until Thursday to develop a unified strategy amid “unprecedented” levels of migration.

According to the WHO, there are currently an estimated 1 billion migrants globally, including 250 million international migrants and 763 million internal migrants. The IOM reports that in the last 15 years, international migration swelled by 41 percent, and 21 million of those migrants were refugees.

“The Global Consultation provides an ideal opportunity to reset the international agenda on migrant health based on extraordinary migration trends we are currently experiencing,” Jacob Kumaresan, a WHO representative to Sri Lanka, said in a press release.

This week’s meeting is only the second since the inaugural Global Consultation in 2010. But renewed attention to the refugee crisis in particular, prompted the organizers to offer a forum for member states and partners to discuss lessons learned, best practices, research, challenges and gaps.

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“The problems are complex. They are context-specific, and they have a strong political dimension,” WHO Director-General Margaret Chan said in her opening statement. “The need now is for concrete, practical, evidence-based guidance.”

According to the IOM, the world is increasingly realizing that migration is an effective “poverty-reduction and development-enabling” strategy. Migrants can improve their health status with safety and better education as well as the purchasing power of family members who were “left behind.” In 2016, migrants sent home more than half a trillion dollars.

However, the conditions in the migration process today, especially for those forced to move or flee, pose significant health risks. Besides accidental injuries, hypothermia and burns, population movement also exposes refugees and migrants to psychosocial disorders, pregnancy and delivery-related complications, drug and alcohol abuse, nutrition disorders and exposure to violence. Children are more susceptible to acute respiratory infections, diarrhea and skin infections from lack of hygiene poor living conditions and deprivation.

According to the WHO and IOM, the key issue is an interruption of health care; and as immigration laws tighten and xenophobia grows, compromised residency statuses for migrants hinder access to adequate, equitable medical services.

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The organizations emphasize that migrants do not generally pose a health risk to hosting communities and, therefore, should not be stigmatized for importing disease. However, the IOM also noted in its overview of the meeting that the Ebola crisis served as a harsh reminder of “how a lack of preparedness, targeted health services and surveillance along mobility pathways undermines effective disease control measures.”

One of the major expected outcomes of this week’s meeting is a declaration of political commitment called the “Colombo statement.” Sri Lanka, as one of the few countries in the world to have a “National Migrant Health Policy” plans to lead the way.

“Ours is a world of unprecedented human mobility with more people on the move than ever before,” Chan said. “Some leave their homes seeking opportunities to work their way into better lives and livelihoods. Others are displaced by intolerable, sometimes life-threatening, situations. … All of these people have health needs.”

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Joanne Lu

Joanne Lu is a South Carolina-based writer and editor dedicated to global development, poverty alleviation and social justice. After a year in Rwanda, she now covers the Asia-Pacific and economics. Find her on Twitter @joannelu or email joanne@humanosphere.com.