The what, why and how of health and development

Sexual and reproductive healthcare is a basic human right – for undocumented migrants too

Despite the right to sexual and reproductive health being well established in EU international human rights instruments, they are – along with many others – frequently denied to undocumented migrants.

I’ve previously written about the problems undocumented migrants have trying to access healthcare here. While researching that piece, it became clear there is a gulf between rights enshrined in international law and policies implemented at a national level. Often care for undocumented migrants depends on the extent of engagement from local government and healthcare groups, who often are best placed to recognise the significant cost savings that can be made by providing preventative care.

Of this group, women in need of sexual and reproductive healthcare are – along with children – arguably the most vulnerable. According to the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants (PICUM), they are disproportionately affected by high rates of maternal and infant mortality, limited access to contraception and pregnancy termination, and heightened levels of discrimination and gender-based violence, including at the border, in transit and in detention.

PICUM say deficiencies of policy and practice on sexual and reproductive health in the EU have been thrown into sharp relief by the recent arrival of millions of refugees and migrants to the continent.

“The desperate trip across borders brings an untold number of new dangers for vulnerable women and girls – violence, rape, sexually transmitted infections, unintended pregnancies, unsafe abortionn,” said Caroline Hickson, Regional Director, International Planned Parenthood Federation (IPPF) Europe. “Access to essential sexual and reproductive health services can be the difference between life and death. Yet it is still shamefully neglected in response strategies. If we value women’s lives, it must move from afterthought to priority.”

An undocumented woman from the Philippines, living in Denmark, shared her experience: “Throughout the course of my pregnancy in Denmark, I did not visit a doctor. I was afraid, because I was in the country without permission. So I continued my work as a cleaner. I went to the hospital only when the pain was unbearable.  The labour was already advanced. There was so much blood. I had a caesarean section, but the baby did not survive. She died in an incubator. But I did see my daughter, I have a photograph of her.  I named her Claire*. She is buried in Copenhagen.” 

A few weeks after giving birth, the woman was deported from Denmark after she was reported by hospital staff to immigration officials.

PICUM’s are now calling for countries to reform legislation and policies that deny or limit access to sexual and reproductive health services on the basis of residence status.

It also urges governments to establish a ‘firewall’ to delink the provision of basic services, including sexual and reproductive health services, from immigration control. In practice, this requires limiting the sharing of personal data between health care providers and immigration enforcement authorities to ensure that patients can access care without fear of being denounced or deported.

To read PICUM’s latest report on the topic, click here.

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