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Free healthcare: A fresh start for refugees and migrants

Thailand / Freedom for Health / 15 dec 2017

There are more refugees and migrants today than ever before. A quarter of a billion people have left their homes for new lives and a further 65 million have been displaced by war and persecution. Millions of migrants and refugees face danger and destitution – either on their journeys or at their destination and, as 86% of forced displaced people are hosted in developing countries, destination communities frequently find their resources overstretched. Denying refugees and migrant people access to basic healthcare forces them to use meagre resources for health services and increases the risk of communicable disease spreading.

Mae Tao Clinic is one place where healthcare is considered a human right and not a privilege. Since 1989, The Mae Tao Clinic has provided free primary healthcare for a mobile population of refugees and migrants, including services for reproductive health, immunisation and HIV care. The patients reside along the Thailand-Myanmar border or make the dangerous journey across the border from Myanmar to Thailand. Reinforcing that health is a human right, people of all ethnicities and religions are welcome at Mae Tao Clinic – and because there are no fees to pay, newly arrived refugees do not face the prospect of restarting their lives in debt.

One patient, Di Poe Wah was born in the tiny village of Thit Moet Par, a community with no school or health clinic. He developed swellings on his feet and a fever. His mother’s homemade traditional remedies did not work and she feared travelling to hospital in a far-away city, where she would be unable to communicate in her own dialect. Di Poe Wah arrived at Mae Tao Clinic ill and malnourished, but after treatment, family health counselling and education, his prospects are positive. The family are determined that Di Poe Wah attends school when he’s old enough, so that he can become a health worker, and perhaps save the lives of babies like himself.

Mae Tao Clinic takes an inclusive approach in assuring its community’s well-being. The clinic runs a school for 900 migrant children and provides new-borns of undocumented mothers with birth registration. Mae Tao Clinic is one of the leading organizations on the border for strengthening the capacity of future community leaders in health, education and civil society. It engages both Thai and Myanmar Ministries of Health. As a community-based organization, it serves as a bridge between the 2 countries, providing services to populations that are not reached by either government programs.

In Thailand, the Universal Coverage Scheme, introduced in 2001, now covers 98% of the population. Thailand has seen a dramatic reduction in infant and child mortality, HIV infections, diabetes effects, and workers' sick days, as well as other economic, social and health benefits. However, this is a result of a 30-years process without internal conflict. With continued peace process and collaboration of healthcare professionals, policy makers and public support, Myanmar could achieve this too, ensuring that all of its people receive the quality healthcare they deserve.