The role of the health community in the European refugee crisis

Adam Tiliouine is a volunteer for global health charity Medact, and involved in organising ‘Health Through Peace’, a two-day conference in November of this year.

2014 was the deadliest year on record for people crossing the Mediterranean in a desperate attempt to reach safety in Europe; over 3,400 people are thought to have died. In 2015 so far, that number is already over 2000. Last year, arrivals in the second half of the year were almost double those of the first half, and predictions therefore suggest that come December the death toll will be higher than ever before.

The numbers go on, and each statistic is both shocking and distressing. Between January and June this year, 137,000 people crossed the Mediterranean, an 83% increase on the 75,000 in the same period last year. In April alone, 1,308 people drowned or went missing. In Calais, earlier this summer, over 1,000 people per night were attempting to reach the UK on lorries or trains. It is the biggest refugee crisis in Europe since World War II.

©European Commission/Creative Commons License

©European Commission/Creative Commons License


The large majority of these people are fleeing from war, conflict, or persecution, and approximately one third are from Syria, escaping a conflict in which the West is a key player. Therefore, the majority are refugees, not migrants, despite the European media’s attempts at creating a hostile atmosphere with their terminology: the migrant crisis. Some news outlets, such as Al Jazeera, have refused to use the word ‘migrant’ where appropriate.

The rapidly escalating situation has led to a quite unsettling response from the political elite of Europe. Hungary is building a four metre high fence along its 110 mile border with Serbia, and its right-wing nationalist prime minister Victor Orbán has advocated for internment camps for illegal immigrants, stating that they should be forced to work. The Italian Navy’s search and rescue program, Mare Nostrum, was discontinued without a replacement in late 2014 due to a lack of funding from European governments, and David Cameron has been branded “irresponsible” and his comments “dehumanising,” when referring to a “swarm” of people crossing the sea.

The response from the health and development community, however, has been much more compassionate and proactive. Large organisations such as Médecins San Frontières (MSF) and the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC) have been especially vocal in their criticism of the European response. Elhadj As Sy, Secretary General of the International Federation of Red Cross and Red Crescent Societies (IFRC) said that “indifference” is to blame for the crisis, and Arjan Hehenkamp, General Director of MSF Holland, has also stated that “ignoring this situation will not make it go away.”

They have joined forces with smaller national organisations from all over Europe, and the UN Refugee Agency, UNHCR, to provide the humanitarian response. Health workers who wish to contribute to the response have the option to do so through smaller organisations, or larger aid agencies operating in Europe, and many are.





©Royal Navy Media Archive/Creative Commons License

©Royal Navy Media Archive/Creative Commons License


Some would see it as a responsibility of the health community to respond, especially given the unique and excessive vulnerabilities of refugees to health complications. While many may leave their homes in relatively good health, the majority of those who survive the dangerous journey are in need of immediate attention when they arrive in Europe – especially those who have spent days locked in the hold of a boat crossing the Mediterranean. All types of health professionals therefore, are needed, and are providing their services on the frontline in Europe, mainly in Greece and southern Italy. Mainly volunteers, although not all, they are doctors, nurses, midwifes and aid workers.

Volunteer health workers are also setting up health stations in Calais, in the various migrant and refugee camps that have formed on the French side of the channel. Free healthcare is provided, although it is not close to being able to meet the need and the demand; many of those in Calais have travelled for almost a month across Europe before arriving in at the French coast.

It is not only on the frontline in Europe, however, that health workers have a role to play. The majority of these people are fleeing conflict-affected countries, and there is a growing conversation in the development community around the role that the health sector can play in both building peace initially, and the transformation to peace in the aftermath of conflict. A functioning health system has the potential to contribute to enhanced social cohesion, and state legitimacy; both of which play a major role in mitigating the likelihood of a relapse into conflict. It also has the potential to redress social inequity and inequality, both key causes and drivers of conflict.

While the role of the health community in Europe is crucial, more needs to be done at the source of the issue itself: in the countries that people are fleeing. It is a big issue, and there is no simple answer, but as Sy from the IFRC said, they have been warning for years that the crisis will continue to escalate and spiral out of control, unless there is a comprehensive response to meet humanitarian need in the countries of origin.

The health community can help address the issue, but it can also help prevent it.

Medact, a global health charity of health professionals, is hosting a conference on November 13th-14th in London, ‘Health Through Peace’. The conference will bring together interested parties to discuss issues such as this, and many more. Join us!


Medact, a global health charity of health professionals, is hosting a conference on November 13th-14th in London, ‘Health Through Peace’. The conference will bring together interested parties to discuss issues such as this, and many more. Join us!


The views expressed in this article are those of the author and do not necessarily represent the views of Development in Action.


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