England and Australia Are Failing in Their Commitments to Refugee Health

Both boast of universal health care but are neglecting the most vulnerable.

Expert comment
Published 10 September 2019 Updated 20 April 2020 3 minute READ
A room where refugees were once housed on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Getty Images.

A room where refugees were once housed on Manus Island, Papua New Guinea. Photo: Getty Images.

England and Australia are considered standard-bearers of universal access to health services, with the former’s National Health Service (NHS) recognized as a global brand and the latter’s Medicare seen as a leader in the Asia-Pacific region. However, through the exclusion of migrant and refugee groups, each is failing to deliver true universality in their health services. These exclusions breach both their own national policies and of international commitments they have made.

While the marginalization of mobile populations is not a new phenomenon, in recent years there has been a global increase in anti-migrant rhetoric, and such health care exclusions reflect a global trend in which undocumented migrants, refugees and asylum seekers are denied rights.

They are also increasingly excluded in the interpretation of phrases such as ‘leave no one behind’ and ‘universal health coverage’, commonly used by UN bodies and member states, despite explicit language in UN declarations that commits countries to include mobile groups.

Giving all people – including undocumented migrants and asylum seekers – access to health care is essential not just for the health of the migrant groups but also the public health of the populations that host them. In a world with almost one billion people on the move, failing to take account of such mobility leaves services ill-equipped and will result in missed early and preventative treatment, an increased burden on services and a susceptibility to the spread of infectious disease.


While in the three other nations of the UK, the health services are accountable to the devolved government, the central UK government is responsible for the NHS in England, where there are considerably greater restrictions in access.

Undocumented migrants and refused asylum seekers are entitled to access all health care services if doctors deem it clinically urgent or immediately necessary to provide it. However, the Home Office’s ‘hostile environment’ policies towards undocumented migrants, implemented aggressively and without training for clinical staff, are leading to the inappropriate denial of urgent and clearly necessary care.

One example is the case of Elfreda Spencer, whose treatment for myeloma was delayed for one year, allowing the disease to progress, resulting in her death.

In England, these policies, which closely link health care and immigration enforcement, are also deterring people from seeking health care they are entitled to. For example, medical bills received by migrants contain threats to inform immigration enforcement of their details if balances are not cleared in a certain timeframe. Of particular concern, the NGO Maternity Action has demonstrated that such a link to immigration officials results in the deterrence of pregnant women from seeking care during their pregnancy.

Almost all leading medical organizations in the United Kingdom have raised concerns about these policies, highlighting the negative impact on public health and the lack of financial justification for their implementation. Many have highlighted that undocument migrants use just and estimated 0.3% of the NHS budget and have pointed to international evidence that suggests that restrictive health care policies may cost the system more.


In Australia, all people who seek refuge by boat are held, and have their cases processed offshore in Papua New Guinea (PNG) and Nauru, at a cost of almost A$5 billion between 2013 and 2017. Through this international agreement, in place since 2013, Australia has committed to arrange and pay for the care for the refugees, including health services ‘to a standard of care broadly comparable to that available to the general Australian community under the public health system’.

However, the standard of care made available to the refugees is far from comparable to that available to the general population in Australia. Findings against the current care provision contractor on PNG, Pacific International Hospital, which took over in the last year, are particularly damning.

For instance, an Australian coroner investigating the 2014 death from a treatable leg infection of an asylum seeker held in PNG concluded that the contractor lacked ‘necessary clinical skills’, and provided ‘inadequate’ care. The coroner’s report, issued in 2018, found the company had also, in other cases, denied care, withheld pain relief, distributed expired medication and had generally poor standards of care, with broken or missing equipment and medication, and services often closed when they were supposed to be open.

This has also been reiterated by the Royal Australasian College of Physicians, which has appealed to the Australian government to end its policies of offshore processing immediately, due to health implications for asylum seekers. This echoes concerns of the medical community around the government’s ongoing attempts to repeal the ‘Medivac’ legislation, which enables emergency medical evacuation from PNG and Nauru.

Bad policy

Both governments have signed up to UN Sustainable Development Goals commitment to ‘safe and orderly migration’, an essential component of which is access to health care. The vision for this was laid out in a global action plan on promoting the health of refugees and migrants, agreed by member states at the 2019 World Health Assembly.

However, rather than allow national policies to be informed by such international plans and the evidence put forward by leading health professionals and medical organizations, the unsubstantiated framing of migrants as a security risk and economic burden has curtailed migrant and refugee access to health care.

The inclusion of migrants and refugees within universal access to health services is not merely a matter of human rights. Despite being framed as a financial burden, ensuring access for all people may reduce costs on health services through prevention of costly later-stage medical complications, increased transmission of infections and inefficient administrative costs of determining eligibility.

Thailand provides an example of a middle-income country that recognized this, successfully including all migrants and refugees in its health reforms in 2002. Alongside entitling all residents to join the universal coverage scheme, the country also ensured that services were ‘migrant friendly’, including through the provision of translators. A key justification for the approach was the economic benefit of ensuring a healthy migrant population, including the undocumented population.

The denial of quality health services to refugees and undocumented migrants is a poor policy choice. Governments may find it tempting to gain political capital through excluding these groups, but providing adequate access to health services is part of both governments’ commitments made at the national and international levels. Not only are inclusive health services feasible to implement and good for the health of migrants and refugees, in the long term, they are safer for public health and may save money.