What is migrant health?

Migrant health refers to the health of people who have left their home to find a better life in another area of their country or in a foreign country. According to the 2013 International Migration, Health, and Human Rights report, migrants leave their homes for many reasons, such as conflict, natural disasters, environmental degradation, persecution, and poverty.[1] Although migrants who arrive in the destination country without the appropriate visa or immigration documents (called ‘irregular’ or ‘undocumented’ migrants) are the most vulnerable to discrimination, all migrants face challenges that can negatively affect their health throughout the migration process, particularly while in the transit phase and after arriving in the destination country.[2]

Why is migrant health a human rights issue?

The principles of equality and discrimination as well as the right to enjoy the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health have long been established in international human rights law. Specifically, Article 12 of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights mandates States to uphold the right to health, while the International Covenant on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families protects the rights of migrants throughout the migration process.[3] Unfortunately, migrants are exposed to severe discrimination, violence, and exploitation in sending countries, while travelling, and after arrival in the destination city or country.[4] Discrimination, violence, and exploitation are not only violations of migrants’ fundamental human rights[5], but can also lead to serious health conditions and even death.[6, 7, 8]

Although migration is dangerous for both men and women, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) asserts that women are more vulnerable to physical, sexual, and verbal abuse while travelling. Because they are both women and foreigners, IOM also states that female migrants face double discrimination in the labour market which further limits their access to health services in their destination city or country.[9]

What are the relevant issues/problems related to migrant health?

  • As described above, migrants without the proper immigration documents face extreme health risks during transit due to the hazardous conditions or harsh terrain that they encounter while travelling.[10]
  • During the transit phase, the absence of health services heightens the risk faced by migrants and increases the burden of disease.[11]
  • In destination countries, some policies cause migrants to avoid contact with the health system. For example, several countries currently require health workers to report migrants who lack proper immigration documents to law enforcement authorities, who may arrest or deport the migrants.[12]
  • The problems faced by migrants include: malnutrition, increased risk of contracting TB and HIV, sexual violence, physical assault, forced labour, dangerous working conditions, unsanitary housing, and lack of access to health, legal or social services.[13]

How can the situation be improved?

Through Resolution WHA61.17 on the Health of Migrants, the World Health Organization has called on its member states to improve the situation by promoting migrant-sensitive health policies and equitable access to health services, devising mechanisms to protect and improve the health of migrants, raising health worker’s cultural sensitivity, and sharing information to migrants’ health needs with countries of origin or return, transit and destination.[14]

According to the International Council of Nurses[15], Migrant Clinicians Network[16], and Physicians for Human Rights[17] health providers and other professionals working with migrants can improve the situation by:

  • Raising public awareness about the problems faced by migrants
  • Countering the false notion that migrants are a vector of disease
  • Identifying the specific health needs of migrant populations
  • Lobbying governments to provide adequate health services
  • Fundraising to develop the necessary resources
  • Advocating for the adoption of appropriate policies and legislation
  • Implementing appropriate and on-going educational initiatives, including culture-specific orientation programmes for health and other professionals working with migrants
  • Providing access to counseling and support services for migrants
  • Facilitating collaboration among health professionals working with migrants
  • Addressing the major causes of migration, such as poverty or human rights violations 

Advocacy, in particular, can improve the situation migrants face enormously.  Some of the ways health professionals have advocated on behalf of migrants are:

  • organizing speakers, videos or discussions about migration for other health professionals
  • testifying before elected officials
  • participating in media campaigns
  • partnering with other groups, e.g., schools, churches and professional organizations to advocate for the protection of migrants’ right to health.[18]

This page was written by Tara Ornstein and last updated in July 2014.


[1] United Nations. International Migration, Health, and Human Rights. Report jointly published by the International Organization for Migration, World Health Organization, and United Nations Office of the High Commissioner. Geneva; 2013. URL: http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/health_of_migrants/en

[2] Zimmerman, Cathy et el. “Migration and Health: A Framework for 21st Century Policy-making.” PLoS Medicine May 2011. URL:http://www.plosmedicine.org/article/info%3Adoi%2F10.1371%2Fjournal.pmed.1001034#s5

[3] United Nations Human Rights Council. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Geneva; 2013. URL:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

[4] International Migration, Health, and Human Rights, http://www.who.int/hac/techguidance/health_of_migrants/en/

[5] Joint statement by the United Nations Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Migrants UN Committee on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Members of Their Families, and the Rapporteur on the Rights of Migrants of the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights, Felipe González. Geneva: 18 December 2013. URL:www.ohchr.org/EN/NewsEvents/Pages/DisplayNews.aspx?NewsID=14116&LangID=E

[6] International Organization for Migration. “Beyond the Numbers.” IOM. Geneva; 2013. URL: http://www.iom.int/files/live/sites/iom/files/pbn/docs/behind-numbers.html

[7] United Nations Human Rights Council. Report of the Special Rapporteur on the right of everyone to the enjoyment of the highest attainable standard of physical and mental health. Geneva; 2013. URL:  http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

[8] United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime. “The fate of smuggled migrants: confronting violence and exploitation.” UNODC. Geneva; 2012. URL:http://www.unodc.org/unodc/en/frontpage/2012/November/the-fate-of-smuggled-migrants-confronting-violence-and-exploitation.html?ref=fs1

[9] International Organization for Migration. Gender and Migration Fact Sheet. Geneva; 2011. URL:http://www.iom.int/jahia/webdav/site/myjahiasite/shared/shared/mainsite/published_docs/brochures_and_info_sheets/gender_factsheet_en.pdf

[10] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

[11] World Health Organization. Health of Migrants Report. WHO. Geneva; 2008. URL: apps.who.int/gb/ebwha/pdf…/A61_12-en.pdf 

[12] http://www.ohchr.org/EN/Issues/Health/Pages/AnnualReports.aspx

[13] http://www.who.int/entity/bulletin/volumes/86/8/08-020808.pdf

[14] World Health Organization. “The Way Forward: Report of the Global Consultation on the Health of Migrants.” Geneva;2010. URL: http://www.who.int/hac/events/3_5march2010/en/

[15] Position Statement. Health services for migrants, refugees, and displaced persons. URL: http://www.icn.ch/publications/position-statements/

[16] http://www.migrantclinician.org/services/home-health/care-providers.html

[17] PHR http://physiciansforhumanrights.org/blog/immigration-status-should-never-affect-medical-care.html.

[18] http://www.migrantclinician.org/services/home-health/care-providers.html



Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Promoting the health of refugees and migrants. Draft framework of priorities and guiding principles to promote the health of refugees and migrants (2017)

Open resource
Type of resource: Manuals and guidelines

Proposed health component Global Compact for Safe, Orderly and Regular Migration (2017)

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Locked up, locked out: health and human rights in immigration detention (2017)
British Medical Association

Open resource
Topics: ,
Type of resource: Books and reports

Migrant workers (2013) - Annual report to the Human Rights Council, A/HRC/23/41
Special Rapporteur on the Right to Health

Open resource
Type of resource: Books and reports

Migration and the Right to Health: A Review of International Law (2009) - Paola Pace, IOM/International Migration Law N°19

Open resource