UCL School of Life and Medical Sciences


Harmful myths about migration and health used to justify exclusion policies

6 December 2018

Myths about migration and health – including that migrants are disease carriers and are a burden on services – are pervasive and harmful to individuals and society, according to a new global report led by UCL and The Lancet.


Public health protection and cost savings are often used as reasons to restrict migrants’ access to health care, or to deny them entry. Yet, as the new UCL-Lancet Commission on Migration and Health has laid out with new international data and analysis, the most common myths about migration and health are not supported by the available evidence and ignore the important contribution of migration to global economies.

Academics say the normalisation of these myths in popular discourse has allowed governments to introduce hostile and restrictive policies in many countries around the world – including the detention of migrants at US borders, and the denial of treatment to migrants in the UK’s NHS.

“Populist discourse demonises the very same individuals who uphold economies and bolster social care and health services. Questioning the deservingness of migrants for health care on the basis of inaccurate beliefs supports practices of exclusion, harming the health of individuals, our society, and our economies,” says Commission Chair and lead author, Professor Ibrahim Abubakar, (UCL Institute for Global Health).

“Migration is the defining issue of our time. How the world addresses human mobility will determine public health and social cohesion for decades ahead. Creating health systems that integrate migrant populations will benefit entire communities with better health access for all and positive gains for local populations. Failing to do so could be more expensive to national economies, health security, and global health than the modest investments required to protect migrants’ right to health, and ensure migrants can be productive members of society.”

In 2018, there were more than one billion people on the move, a quarter of whom were migrants crossing international borders. The Migration and Health Commission is the result of a two-year project led by 20 leading experts from 13 countries, and includes new data analysis, with two original research papers, and represents the most comprehensive review of the available evidence to date.

Commission Coordinator and Co-author, Dr Miriam Orcutt (UCL Institute for Global Health) added: “Despite the World Health Organisation’s prioritisation of Universal Health Coverage and recognition of the need for migrant-sensitive health systems, there are increasing barriers for migrants to access healthcare globally.

For example, in the UK, the introduction of upfront charges to access the NHS from October 2017, as part of the hostile environment policy, has marginalised those who are most vulnerable: often individuals who have been forced to flee instability, violence or poverty.” 

As migrants face increasing health and humanitarian risks from global policies of arbitrary detention, involuntary and unsafe repatriation and restrictive immigration and asylum policies, the authors have urged medical and public health practitioners to engage further with the topic of migration and health in order to inform public discourse and ensure migration policies are based on humanity and solidarity.

The Lancet editor Dr Richard Horton commented: “In too many countries, the issue of migration is used to divide societies and advance a populist agenda. With one billion people on the move today, growing populations in many regions of the world, and the rising aspirations of a new generation of young people, migration is not going away. Migrants commonly contribute more to the economy than they cost, and how we shape their health and wellbeing today will impact our societies for generations to come. There is no more pressing issue in global health.”

The Commission will continue to address migration as a global health priority and propose recommendations for increasing access to healthcare and maximising the health of all people on the move.

The Commission was led and co-authored by a Steering Group at UCL: Professor Ibrahim Abubakar, Dr Rob Aldridge (Institute of Health Informatics), Dr Delan Devakumar (UCL Institute for Global Health), Ms Rachel Burns (Institute of Health Informatics) and Dr Miriam Orcutt (UCL Institute for Global Heath).  Full findings (which include two original research papers) were also co-authored by academics from UCL: Professor Davide Mosca (UCL Institute for Global Health), Professor Nora Groce (Leonard Cheshire Chair of Disability and Inclusive Development and Institute of Epidemiology & Health) and Professor Peter Sammonds (UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction).  Further UCL contributing authors included: Dr Ayesha Ahmad (Honorary Lecturer (UCL Institute for Global Health), Dr Bayes Ahmad (UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction), Dr Ilan Kelman (UCL Institute for Risk and Disaster Reduction and UCL Institute for Global Health),

The report will be presented on 8th December at a side event to the UN Intergovernmental Conference to adopt the Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration in Marrakech. 



Credit: courtesy of CatalyticAction via Flickr (CC by 2.0)

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Rowan Walker

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