Displaced mothers face dire health crisis, report says

Pregnant women and new-mothers struggle to gain access to maternal care when arriving in Europe as refugees. [Zeljko Sinobad/ Shutterstock]

Less than a half of pregnant refugees arriving on Greece’s shores have access to maternal care, a new report unveiled on Tuesday (3 October) has found.

The arduous journey for a refugee fleeing war and famine to come to Europe is an ordeal most people find hard to imagine. Now imagine making that journey while pregnant.

That was the case for R.M., a refugee from Syria who sailed from Turkey to Greece in January 2016. Not only was she pregnant, she was also carting along two young children. She gave birth last year in a refugee camp in the Greek region of Attica.

R.M., who told her story through the group Medecins du Monde (MDM) but preferred to remain anonymous, ended up homeless and sleeping on a bench in Athens’ Victoria Square just three months after giving birth.

She had no access to maternal care before or after giving birth and her newborn baby began suffering from severe allergic asthma and skin allergies.

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She and her children were found on the street in Athens by MDM volunteers earlier this year. They were placed in MDM’s Reception Centre for Vulnerable Asylum Seekers and given medical care and psychosocial support.

Eventually, MDM was able to locate R.M.’s husband in Germany, who had been granted refugee status. The family has now been reunited and the children are in improving health.

R.M.’s experience is not unique.

A report unveiled by MDM in Athens on Tuesday, on the occasion of Safe Motherhood Week, found that the already arduous situation for pregnant refugees is being made all the worse by a lack of access to healthcare specific to women, which is considered as a secondary priority.

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The report, based on the experience of 14,000 refugee women surveyed, found that less than 47% of those women had access to reproductive healthcare. For 72% of the health problems they faced, they received inadequate or no medical care.

“Every mother deserves good care before, during and post pregnancy – their residential status should not affect this basic right,” said Nikitas Kanakis, president of MDM, in Athens.

“The experience from our programmes shows that providing equal access will improve and save lives, whilst also reducing pressures on hard-pressed healthcare systems around Europe.”

Currently, asylum applicants have the right to emergency healthcare in their host countries, but this usually does not include anything other than the most basic maternal care. Migrants who have obtained legal residence in EU countries must be treated equally to national citizens for access to healthcare.

Speaking at a conference on refugee health in Brussels last month, EU Health Commissioner Vytenis Andriukaitis said the European Commission wants to push further with the RE-HEALTH 2 project, which helps integrate migrants into host country’s health systems. This, he said, will help vulnerable refugees understand what medical is available to them.

“This is a very difficult situation for people traveling so far – people including babies, small children, pregnant women – in such harsh conditions,” he said.

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Along with the report, MDM has put out a set of refugee health policy recommendations which Kanakis hopes will “spur EU institutions and member states to join together to tackle the barriers vulnerable mothers and other migrant women face in trying to get good care.”

The report identifies prohibitive costs – in most cases 100% of the total cost of their medical care – as the main barrier. Other barriers include refugees’ lack of awareness of their own rights, poor understanding of the workings of the host country’s healthcare system, fear of deportation, and lack of facilities for women at refugee camps.

Last year MDM Greece launched the Mother & Child programme, a two-year initiative aimed at providing quality maternal healthcare services to pregnant women and babies from vulnerable populations.  Since its launch, it has provided medical services to more than 31,000 vulnerable and pregnant women, and pediatric services to 5,000 infants and newborns.

Kanakis says more attention from Europe’s political leaders can create more success stories like R.M.’s.

“Access to quality maternal healthcare can save lives, yet across Europe, he most vulnerable pregnant women are still facing challenges in accessing this basic care,” he said. “We must work together to address this issue before it escalates further.”