Doctors warn of rising xenophobia in Europe’s healthcare systems

Homeless immigrant. Germany, undated.

Austerity measures adopted in Europe in response to the public debt crisis have a devastating impact on healthcare services, resulting in rising xenophobia in countries like Greece and Spain, the humanitarian group Doctors of the World said Tuesday (9 April).

Rising unemployment and poverty across Europe have generated extreme-right statements stigmatising migrants, Doctors of the World stated in its 2012 report, 'Access to healthcare in Europe in times of crisis and rising xenophobia'.

The organisation's 2012 report, which covers data collected in 14 cities across seven countries, notes a rise in xenophobic acts and regulations in Greece and in other European countries as a result of austerity measures.

Pressure in Greece, Spain

Speaking at the launch of the report at the International Press Centre in Brussels, Dr Nikitas Kanakis from Doctors of the World Greece said xenophobia and healthcare always go together.

"It's about dignity and and to live safely without fear," Kanakis said. "With the social crisis getting bigger and bigger every day, we see again that the poorer people are being pointed out. We see again, mostly in the South, that people who need more from the state are being accused more often. We have to talk about this."

"These people who need a good health system are afraid to go there. The people who need the support from Europe more, they experience it less and we can't be silent," Kanakis added.

In Greece, the entire public health system is under enormous pressure due to austerity measures. In Spain, the government has legally restricted access to care for undocumented migrants.

At the same time, groups that were already facing vulnerability before the crisis, such as undocumented migrants, asylum seekers, drug users, sex workers, destitute European citizens and homeless people, have seen a reduction in social safety nets which provide them with basic help.

Universal healthcare system disappearing

Some 81% of patients who showed up at a Doctors of the World clinic in 2012 had no possibility of accessing care without paying the full cost and 49% had unstable or temporary housing.

Among the patients who spoke out about violence, 27% reported having suffered violent acts after their arrival in the host country; 20% reported having been denied access to care by a healthcare provider in the last 12 months (especially in Spain, 62%).

Dr Alvaro Gonzales from Doctors of the World in Spain said that in the current crisis situation, with high unemployment and poverty and more people living on the street, the Spanish government is pursuing cuts.

"This has led to a dismantling and a destruction of the welfare state and the public healthcare system," Gonzales stated.

He added that Spain is moving away from universal healthcare. Now people can only access the system if they are working, are active or have the public healthcare card, Gonzales said.

"This effects a group of the population which is very vulnerable, the undocumented migrants, and it is important to highlight the fact that it is an ideological issue because it can't be supported from a human right point of view. It's completely unfair and goes against international treaties," Gonzales said.

Doctors of the World is an international humanitarian organisation providing medical care to vulnerable populations affected by war, natural disasters, disease, famine, poverty or exclusion.

In the new report, the groups seek the right to provide healthcare, in accordance with medical ethics, to all patients, regardless of their social status or ethnic origin.

"We call for national public health systems built on solidarity, equality and equity, open to all those living in the EU, rather than systems based on a profit rationale. We ask for a coherent EU public health policy for the prevention and treatment of infectious diseases," the Doctors of the World said.

UK tackles social tourism

Spain and Greece are not the only countries experiencing pressure on social benefits.

In Britain, Prime Minister David Cameron promised new controls to rein in migrant's access to healthcare, housing and social benefits, amid growing calls to tackle "social tourism" in the UK.

"What we have is a free National Health Service not a free International Health Service," Cameron said in reference to migrants from Bulgarian and Romania.

>> Read: UK report rebuffs Cameron on migrants from Bulgaria, Romania

Dr Thierry Brigaud of Doctors of the World France commented: "Although many of these patients come to Europe to seek protection, they are not protected. This means that restoring mental health, when it comes to that, is not possible. Many of these people are isolated. They have weak social connections and live in a precarious condition with a significantly uncertain future."

Representative of Doctors of the World Belgium, Dr Michel Degueldre, said: "These people do not come to us very easily. We have to reach out to them ourselves because they are not used to being given things. They are isolated, socially and psychologically, but they have the same physical problems that we have. Sometimes their chronic conditions are far worse because they have not previously been treated."

The eurozone debt crisis has forced some governments to drastically cut their public health budgets in an effort to contain deficits.

Greece was among the countries taking the toughest measures but Spain and other countries such as France and the Czech Republic have also taken similar steps.

>> Read our LinksDossier: Austerity: Healthcare in hardship

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