Towards Refugee Inclusion in Health Policies for Africa

Conflict and rising insecurity characterizes everyday life in many parts of Nigeria. In places such as Gambaru and Chibok, the constant invasion of farmlands and homes has caused many to flee for neighbouring Niger and Chad, leaving thriving villages desolate. This scenario is the same in many parts of the African continent. From South Sudan to Congo, people caught in the crossfires of political upheaval and civil wars are either seeking asylum or taking on the status of refugee.

File:Refugee camp Chad.jpg - Wikimedia Commons
Refugee Camp. Source: Creative Commons

In the response to refugees situations, charitable organizations and well-meaning individuals prioritize the provision of housing and relief materials.

Is this enough? Do relief handouts and courtesy visits paid by government officials correct the fundamental factors that translate to refugees reporting higher suicide ideation rates than the general population and higher mortality rates due to preventable illnesses? Are their health needs accounted for in health planning? Are schools flexible enough to accommodate the needs of refugee children whose education have been interrupted? When internally displaced persons leave camps, do employers and the health system take into account their often fragile mental health?

Although there are important distinctions between refugees, internally displaced persons (IDPs) and other migrants defined in Migration Law and Governance, common difficulties which the aforementioned people typically experience must be addressed if universal health coverage (UHC) is to be achieved. The COVID-19 pandemic reminded us all of the interconnectedness of life in the 21st century. What started as a localized epidemic in faraway China has now become a public health emergency of international concern.

The lesson from this is clear. The world cannot overcome COVID-19 if it overlooks refugees. No one is safe until everyone is safe. We need to ensure that people forced to flee have access to healthcare, essential medicines and psychological support, like everyone else.

While countries the world over grapple with finding ways to vaccinate their populations, migrants – especially refugees – must not be left behind. The health and lives of everyone – especially refugees – should be a priority within health systems, workforce planning and education considering that the millions displaced by conflict situations and natural disasters represent a valuable proportion of human capital.

The United Nations High Commission on Refugees reports that Sub-Saharan Africa hosts more than 26 per cent of the world’s refugee population. More than ever, Africa must adopt a migrant inclusive approach to health planning and policy making.

The Centre for Health Ethics Law and Development (CHELD) developed a training module for policy makers, migration experts and key actors in governance across Africa which takes into cognizance the need for refugee inclusion in health policies especially along the lines of gender, UHC, emergency preparedness and health security. The training module is an offshoot of an extensive study conducted by the Centre for Rural Development (SLE) of Humboldt University, Berlin commissioned by the Department of Health, Humanitarian Affairs and Social Development of the African Union Commission and the GIZ which explores ways of addressing current health challenges of migrants & refugees in Africa. Read the full report here.

Changing the lives and lot of refugees and migrants requires more than policy reform and training of people who work with migrants or those who provide them with healthcare. We all must come together to provide refugees with the chance to continue to contribute to a stronger, safer and more vibrant world.


The Migration Blog series is authored by Adeyinka Shittu and Dr. Cheluchi Onyemelukwe.

Adeyinka Shittu is a Program Manager at CHELD overseeing migration oriented research and advocacy. Dr Cheluchi Onyemelukwe is the Executive Director, CHELD. Working with organizations such as the International Organization on Migration, she contributes her expertise on migration policymaking.

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