Barriers to undocumented migrants’ access to COVID-19 vaccines

As of 11 February 2022, 70.8% of the population in EU/EEA countries received their primary course of the COVID-19 vaccine, as reveals data from the ECDC. From a global perspective, it is undeniable that countries across Europe have done an outstanding job at attaining high rates of vaccination amongst their populations, which represents a crucial step in reducing the spread of COVID-19.

However, challenges still remain in terms of the ability of all groups to access vaccines, in particular for undocumented migrants. In fact, these groups continue in many countries to be excluded from national vaccination programmes as a result of harmful policies fuelled by anti-immigration rhetoric. This is counter-effective to the vaccination goals of many European countries as it puts undocumented migrants at a further risk of contracting the virus, which in turn makes them more likely to pass the virus to others and thus become a bigger threat to public health. This is all the more alarming given that migrants (including undocumented migrants) represent a significant part of the population of many European countries, such as in Germany where they amount to about 12 million people.

Low rates of vaccination among undocumented migrant groups can be attributed to a number of reasons, both direct and indirect. This includes but is not limited to: a lack of transparency on vaccine policies, identification and residency requirements, the exclusion of undocumented migrants from vaccination policies, a lack of guarantee of data privacy, as well as existing social, geographical and linguistic barriers.

Taking the example of Poland, the vaccination environment of undocumented appears rather exclusionary due to a number of factors. First and foremost, undocumented migrants are explicitly excluded from official vaccination documents, wherein “only citizens, legal residents, work permit holders, [and] official asylum seekers” can get vaccinated through national healthcare programs. Furthermore, in order to get vaccinated, all patients must generally show proof of an ID, of their right to stay in Poland and/or a PESEL number, all of which undocumented migrants, by reason of their irregular status, often lack.

In the case of Italy, despite the fact that official vaccination documents clearly state that “everyone in the country, independent of legal status” can be vaccinated by public health authorities, the latter may still be discouraged from accessing vaccines by reason of a lack of clarity as to whether they can access vaccines without an ID. Additionally, there is no guarantee as to whether medical staff won’t inform the police or immigration enforcement authorities of their status prior to/during COVID-19 vaccination. Fearful of their status being revealed to the police and being deported as a result, many undocumented migrants are forced to remain in the shadows. This is counter-effective to the vaccination goals of many countries given that it places these groups at a further risk of contracting the virus, and experiencing health complications which could potentially lead to death.

In an effort to reassure its undocumented migrant population, which possibly amounts to 1.3 million people, the British government has made it publicly clear to NHS officials and other public healthcare services that no one being vaccinated shall be subjected to ID verifications, nor immigration status checks of any sort. Furthermore, the British government declared that vaccination for all populations is free for anyone living under British territory, regardless of their immigration status. Such strategies are likely to increase vaccination rates among undocumented migrants, given that they foster an environment of trust where the latter may access vaccines and other healthcare services safely, and without any fear that they may be detained or deported as a result of such. Furthermore, making all vaccines free removes important financial barriers for these groups, who in many cases can’t get vaccinated due to exorbitant healthcare costs.

Another important but often neglected barrier to undocumented migrants’ ability to access vaccines is language. Taking the example of Poland, where the vast majority of migrants come from Ukraine, Germany and Belarus, vaccine resources are only available in Polish, the country’s official national language. This represents a significant barrier to the vaccination of undocumented migrants, given that the vast majority of these groups are not fluent in the local languages of the countries in which they reside, and thus unable to understand crucial information about vaccines. One way to solve this issue is to provide translation of healthcare material in languages that correspond to the majority of migrant populations, as well as provide the option to have translators at the time of vaccination for those who lack fluency in a local language.

If governments wish to increase rates of vaccination among undocumented migrants and their populations more generally, it is primordial that they adopt policies that are inclusive, transparent, trustworthy, and remedy significant barriers that continue to deter undocumented migrants from accessing healthcare. Most importantly, there needs to be a clear divide between the work of public health services and that of immigration enforcement authorities, if governments wish to fight COVID-19 more effectively and create more trust among their populations.

What is the legal framework around COVID-19 vaccination in your country? Do you find it to be inclusive of all migrants ? If not, what sort of barriers or legal loopholes can be identified?

With regards to the administration of vaccines by health officials, are there any challenges or setbacks that could deter undocumented migrants from getting vaccinated ? If so, which ones?

We would like to hear your thoughts !

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