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Access to healthcare for unaccompanied child refugees in the EU & UK

Analysis of the current situation and ways forward

Whilst the right to healthcare is not specifically provided for under UK law, the Human Rights Act 1998 imposes an obligation on all public authorities to respect and adhere to the fundamental rights outlined in the European Convention on Human Rights (ECHR). Although this has inspired ‘an increasingly rights-based approach to providing healthcare’ within the UK and across Europe, specific protection of the right to health is notably absent from the Convention. Indeed, despite the 1951 Refugee Convention’s patent assertion that Refugees should have access to healthcare equal to that of the host population in whichever nation they find themselves in, de facto, this is not the case. And despite the European Court of Human Rights drawing upon the ‘right to life’ enshrined under Article 2 of the ECHR to develop ‘more substantive justiciable protection’ of the right to healthcare access, many refugees remain unfairly denied essential healthcare and medical aid in the UK and Europe.

Whilst the refugee’s predicament is inherently precarious, and idiosyncratic healthcare complications compound this dire lived reality, this vulnerability is particularly pronounced when considering the case of unaccompanied child refugees who almost inevitably struggle to communicate their thoughts, pains, and illnesses whilst navigating foreign healthcare systems alone; torn from education, family, and any semblance of normality. Between 2015 and 2017, the World Health Organisation documented the arrival of over 200,000 migrant children with no caregiver into the EU, while the 2016 UN Committee Report on the Rights of the Child expressed particular fears about the inequalities relating to healthcare access for children by virtue of immigration status. In many of these cases, the child’s health is sub-optimal - malnutrition is rife, as is the need for vaccination and rehabilitation for injuries and disabilities. Furthermore, chronic conditions are commonplace, requiring en masse identification and treatment. Whilst Article 24 of the UN Convention on the Rights of a Child establishes the right of all children to treatment of illness and rehabilitation of health, it is clear that access to healthcare for this marginalised group remains unattainable.

As a pertinent and unresolved issue in the UK and Europe, Polygeia Bristol’s first report will survey the current situation relating to unaccompanied child refugees’ access to healthcare, highlighting key issues and identifying ways to redress these problems. It is hoped that these findings and recommendations will contribute to policymakers’ future considerations in the area.

This blog post was prepared by members of the Polygeia Bristol Branch.


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