NEW YORK – In a world in which health issues, conflict, and environmental problems can quickly make a given area unsafe, it naturally follows that many distressed people around the world would leave their homes in search of a better life. The United Nations hosted a panel discussion on Thursday discuss the health risks that these individuals – especially the young ones – face as they seek sanctuary and safety.
An estimated 214 million people in the world today are classified as migrants, according to the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UN DESA). This number is about twice the number of immigrants accounted for fifty years ago. About 60% of these immigrants live in developed countries (especially the United States and Europe). Conditions for these migrants are often difficult, as they are forced to deal with racism, discriminatory governmental policies, and issues associated with culture shock.
But the 40% of migrants who settle in the developing world can face much more severe challenges, especially when it comes to health. Despite internationally agreed upon legislation protecting migrants’ health, many of these people are denied basic rights. The International Convention on the Protection of the Rights of All Migrant Workers and Their Families, adopted by the General Assembly in 1990, guarantees migrants the right to equal treatment regarding access to social and health services for regular migrant workers and members of their families, emergency health treatment, and other fundamental rights pertaining to health protection. In reality, due to unstable political situations and a common fear of being deported, these specifications are often ignored, and migrants are forced to live in situations without dignity or respect.
Many of these individuals are young people, aged 15 to 24. At this age, a combination of adult freedom and physical mobility spur many to abandon poor conditions at home in the hopes of achieving security elsewhere. This is especially true in the developing world, where about a third of all migrants are under the age of thirty. These numbers are disproportionately high in Africa and Asia, where instability forces many out of their homes at an early age.
“Youth is a very challenging issue when we’re talking about migration,” said Pablo Lattes of the Migration Section of UN DESA. In his presentation at Thursday’s panel discussion, he stressed the necessity of remaining actively engaged in the migration situation in Africa and Asia, to ensure that the health services needed for these migrants were not ignored. Werner Obermeyer, Executive Director of the World Health Organization (WHO), agreed. “It needs to be a holistic approach,” he said. “We need to look at this from a very broad perspective and with the cooperation of migrants themselves.”
In their discussion of youth migrant issues, panelists addressed specific issues of migrant health concerns in regions where this topic is a priority. One challenge brought up by Ann Pawliczko, Senior Project Adviser of the Population and Development Branch of the UN FPA (UN Population Fund), was the problem of heavy migration into Southern Sudan as that region becomes autonomous this July.
Many Southern Sudanese, Pawliczko pointed out, have moved to the North in recent years, especially Khartoum, seeking better infrastructure and security than they had at home. Now, these migrants, eager to enjoy their newly established independence are returning to Southern Sudan in large numbers, stressing the already fragile health services, education system, and transportation infrastructure of this predominantly rural country. Pawliczko identified this particular issue as one example of the sort of struggles that the UN and international community should give close attention to, in order to maintain peace and security there.