British government violating right of failed asylum seekers to health care

Editorial: Failed asylum seekers and healthcare BMJ Volume 333, pp 109-10

The British government is violating the right of failed asylum seekers to health care, according to an editorial in this week’s BMJ.

Since the start of the National Health Service, British doctors have taken pride in working in a service whose core principles include healthcare as a basic human right and a universal service for all based on clinical need, not ability to pay.

Yet the reality is different, writes Peter Hall of Doctors for Human Rights. Destitute failed asylum seekers are being refused hospital treatment and being hounded by debt collectors if they have received emergency treatment,

In restricting their access to free secondary healthcare, the British government is violating the right of failed asylum seekers to the highest attainable standard of health, guaranteed by the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

In 2002, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which monitors states’ compliance with the covenant, asked the UK to ensure that its obligations under the covenant were taken into account in national legislation and policy on health and education. Yet within two years the government had blocked access to free NHS hospital health care for most failed asylum seekers and expressed an intention to deny them access to free NHS primary care.

Denial of access to health care by one of the richest countries on earth is inhumane because it jeopardises their health and illegal because it violates international law, says the author.

But where do these regulations leave doctors, he asks? Conforming with legislation that denies access to health care goes against the instincts of many doctors, affronts common decency, and infringes international and domestic ethical codes.

In its 2002 report, the Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, urged the UK government to ensure that health professionals be educated in economic, social, and cultural rights and the public be informed of the requirements of the covenant, but neither recommendation has been followed. The government needs to observe its obligations under the covenant. In the meantime, health professionals who have cooperated in limiting access should understand they have unknowingly been made complicit in the abuse of a fundamental human right, he concludes.

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Last reviewed: By John M. Grohol, Psy.D. on 21 Feb 2009
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