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On being let down by GPs

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Migrant Voice, GPs, NHS, migrants, right to healthcare, access denied, cancer, miscarrying,Too many people in this country are unable to access the healthcare they are entitled to.

Editorial from Migrant Voice.

Anyone resident in the UK is allowed to register with and to see a GP, but many migrants face discrimination, ignorance and a slammed door when they try to access this basic right.

A few weeks ago, we met Grace, who told us about a time when she was in a lot of pain. She was advised to go to the local GP but they refused to register her. She was too scared to go to A&E in case any treatment left her with a big bill impossible to pay. So she had to live with the pain and later lost her baby, which she didn’t even know she was carrying.

A society where some people are too scared or too poor to access healthcare, or are prevented from doing so, is not a healthy society – and we want to see that changed.

Grace is a member of The Voice of Domestic Workers, an education and support group for migrant domestic workers in the UK. We visited them in March together with two representatives from Doctors of the World, to do a media training session. You can read some of the blogs they wrote here.

Some of the women we met are undocumented as they were trafficked to the UK or fled from abusive employers after arriving here.

But both those with documents and those without have faced problems accessing the healthcare they are entitled to.

Many of them told us their attempts to register with a GP had failed as receptionists insisted on seeing ID (which some don’t have) and a home address (which some are fearful to give), even though neither is required by law.

Others spoke of racism they had encountered at their GP surgery or local hospital, and the fear that prevents many of them from seeking treatment at all – fear that they’ll be refused, fear that they’ll be treated and left with a bill for thousands of pounds, fear that they’ll be punished when they can’t pay, fear that information about their status will be shared with the Home Office.

One woman, Eliza, discovered she had stage 4 ovarian cancer just months after arriving in the UK. She credits her survival to her employer, a lawyer who understood her rights to healthcare and advocated for her each step of the way.

Many others aren’t so lucky. Jasmine is a victim of trafficking and has an abusive employer. But to be officially recognised as a trafficking victim, the Home Office requires medical evidence from a GP. Jasmine has tried several doctors but none will help her.

Over our years as Migrant Voice, we have also spoken with many other migrants, from all backgrounds and with all kinds of immigration status, who have experienced problems accessing their right to healthcare.

For these migrants, there’s a chasm between their legal rights and reality, one that threatens their health, their wellbeing, and even their lives.

Last May we saw the end – far too long in coming – of systematic data sharing between the NHS and the Home Office, but patient information is still shared for other reasons, and for many migrants, deep mistrust remains.

At Migrant Voice, we stand alongside these migrants, and organisations such as Doctors of the World, Docs Not Cops, Medact and Migrants Organise, who are all doing excellent work educating and campaigning on this issue.

We want to see:

– all NHS staff receive regular mandatory training on the rights of people with different kinds of immigration status (and none at all) to access healthcare;

– realistic repayment plans for hospital treatment and an end to any punitive measures for those who cannot pay; and

– education campaigns to raise awareness about the rights of migrants in the NHS, so all migrants have the tools to advocate for themselves.

We are rightly proud of the NHS in this country. But we should be ashamed of the way some people are being treated – or not treated – within our health system.

Education – of NHS staff, migrants and Brits – can go a long way towards building the healthy society we want to see.

As Wendy, one of the domestic workers, wrote, “we deserve to live, even if we are migrants”.

A version of this post first appeared on Migrant Voice’s website.

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