Background and health concerns

Learn more about the background and health problems of asylum seekers and refugees

The majority of asylum seekers and refugees come from developing countries where there is abuse of human rights, war and conflict, and limited basic resources such as access to health care, safe drinking water, accommodation, food supply and education (UNHCR, 2011). The countries have a limited capacity to treat those with acute health concerns and chronic diseases and to provide immunisation. In addition, many asylum seekers and refugees will spend many days, weeks, months and years travelling trying to reach a safe place.  This increases the risk of physical and mental health problems and sexual violence, and makes them vulnerable to psychological trauma. Often, they will stay in overcrowded camps, with very poor hygiene, lack of sanitation and exposure to disease (Brannan et al, 2016). Water, food and shelter are usually limited in the camps during migration. As a result of all the above issues, many asylum seekers and refugees have had poor access to health care prior to arriving in the UK.

The primary health concerns of children, young people and adult asylum seekers and refugees can be grouped into three categories. Category 1: Primary health concerns on arrival in the UK, Category 2: Primary health concerns at settlement stage and Category 3: Long-term primary health concerns, as shown here.

As stated above, asylum seekers and refugees are at increased risk of physical and psychological health problems, so early screening, assessment and holistic interventions are necessary. Early identification and treatment are less costly and more beneficial to individuals. This approach should adopt screening and assessment tools appropriate for adults and children.

The following attached files contain the hand held records for an adult and a child. These were developed by the Department of Health in 2004 and can still be used to assist health care practitioners to identify physical and psychological problems and provide the best possible holistic support.  Hand held records are available on the web archive.

Some of the issues described by respondents were quite similar to the physical health needs of asylum seekers and refugees outlined by Dr Angela Burnett and Yohannes Fassil7, champions of the health needs of asylum seekers and refugees in their 2002 resource pack entitled ‘Meeting the health needs of refugee and asylum seekers in the UK’. However, the findings of this project highlight the psychological and mental health needs which have hitherto received less attention.  We therefore hope that local services will be able to adapt their assessment and screening to incorporate both physical and mental health issues to ensure that asylum seekers and refugees receive timely assessment and treatment. 

   Further reading    

Refugee Women’s Health  

Refugee women may be at greater risk than other women as a result of their migration experience.

Useful organisations and resources




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