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Leave no ‘migrants’ behind: towards a global agenda for migrant inclusive health systems

People are on the move more than ever before: while some migrate in search of greener pastures, many others are forcibly displaced, fleeing conflicts or escaping persecution. This has significant implications for the health sector in countries of origin, transit and destination. Existing health systems struggle to adapt, especially in the context of mass migration, leaving migrants vulnerable to health risks. Let’s also not forget about the huge internal migration in quite a few countries.

From February 21st to 23rd, delegates from over 40 countries met in Colombo, Sri Lanka to identify gaps and accomplishments so far and to reach consensus on key policy strategies to reset the agenda on migrant health. Representatives from governments, academia, NGOs and civil society organizations, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) and the WHO discussed three thematic areas within a rights based, people centered and equity framework: Global Health, Vulnerability & Resilience and Development.

Sri Lanka, the host country, and one of the few in the world to have a comprehensive health policy for migrants is cognizant of the contribution migrants make to the economy and is committed to safeguarding their right to health. Sri Lanka has taken significant steps to bring migration and health on the global health discourse through the UNGA high level meeting on migration and forced displacement held last year in New York and regional platforms such as the WHO Regional Committee for South-East Asia  (SEARO) and the Colombo Process (a forum of Asian labour sending countries to facilitate dialogue and cooperation relating to labour mobility).

Migration is a social determinant of health that impacts on the health of migrants, their families and host communities. The Regional Director of IOM for the Asia-Pacific, Dr Maria Nanette Motus acknowledged the urgent need for global Compacts and inter-country engagement in strengthening bilateral social protection agreements between source, transit and destination countries.

Pursuing the vision of the 2030 agenda to leave no one behind, by reducing vulnerabilities and addressing key health needs of migrants, will safeguard not only migrants but also host populations from long-term health and social costs, facilitating integration and creation of a more equitable and inclusive society. Cross border initiatives are needed to ensure that migrant health is addressed without discrimination throughout all phases of the migration cycle. Every single day we read  disturbing reports in the media on how migrants’ health and human rights are jeopardized or worse, while migrating – so they hope – to a better future. This is a global responsibility.



 ‘We’d like to see migrant health as a litmus test of the coherence of the SDGs and ultimately of the actual implementation of universal health coverage’.

Dr Maria Nanette Motus, Regional Director of IOM for the Asia-Pacific Region


Strengthening the resilience of existing health systems is a priority to provide migrant sensitive health services through the implementation of well-managed and coordinated migration policies, including financial risk protection and equal access to quality services. The need for evidence and its relevance in enhancing migrant-inclusive policy development was voiced by the Director-General of IOM, Mr William Lacy Swing: ‘We need to be guided by evidence, not uninformed opinions; we need to be guided by science and pragmatism, not fear and misinformation.’  That might not be exactly in sync with our ‘post-truth’ times, but remains true more than ever.

The Consultation was a meaningful platform for multisectoral dialogue and to secure political commitment in an environment of increasing challenges to integrating migrant health needs in national and international policies and strategies. The highlight of the consultation was the launch of the ‘Colombo Statement’ which calls for mainstreaming migrant health into key national, regional and international agendas aligned with the implementation of WHA resolutions and SDGs. This will pave the way for sustained international dialogue leading up to the adoption of the Global Compact for safe, orderly and regular migration and the Global Compact on refugees in 2018.

The need to work hand in hand with migrant communities, governments, civil society, the private sector and academia amidst competing priorities and increasing anti-migrant and anti-refugee sentiments was reiterated throughout the consultation and well echoed by the WHO Regional Director of SEARO, Dr Poonam Khetrapal Singh: ‘Together we have the power to bend history to our benefit. Together we can ensure that the right to health is secure for all including migrants and refugees.’

Or as somebody used to say not so long ago, when the world still felt like a better place: “Yes we can!”

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