Today MPs are debating the Immigration Bill. Part of the debate centres around charging migrants for access to healthcare.
We’re extremely concerned about the impact these health proposals will have on vulnerable refugees and asylum seekers who already face significant barriers to NHS care.
Of particular worry is the impact on pregnant asylum seeking women, including women who have been refused asylum, and their babies.
These plans undoubtedly risk exacerbating the existing barriers that women with insecure immigration status experience in accessing maternity care.
While antenatal care is considered immediate and necessary, GPs are by far the most common referral route to maternity services and it is access to GPs which stands to be restricted even further.
Not only may women be deterred from accessing GP services, but health professionals may be confused by the complex and varied documentation carried by asylum seekers and refugees and wrongly charge people for care.
We know that pregnant women seeking asylum already have extremely poor maternal health outcomes, with the Royal College of Obstetricians and Gynaecologists noting that pregnant asylum seeking women are seven times more likely to develop complications during childbirth and three times more likely to die than the general population.
We should be seeking to improve these shocking statistics, not worsen them.
Refugee Council volunteer Josephine, a refused asylum seeker from Zimbabwe, did not register with a GP for fear of being forcibly removed. When she became ill in 2002, she felt she had no option. The GP discovered she was pregnant.
A teenager, pregnant for the first time and with no family in the UK, Josephine saw a midwife when she was 28 weeks pregnant. At 32 weeks, on her second visit to the midwife, she was told to go to hospital immediately. Diagnosed with preeclampsia, Josephine was given an emergency caesarean. Three days after the birth, the baby developed an infection and was operated on.
The baby did not survive.
Like most women, Josephine accessed maternity care via her GP.
Due to her insecure immigration status, Josephine was fearful of accessing healthcare she urgently needed. Under the new proposals, these barriers would be compounded.
Josephine would be unable to even register with her GP until she became entitled to asylum support when she was six weeks before her due date. Such a delay would have been life threatening.
In 2009, eight years after arriving in the UK, Josephine was finally granted leave to remain. She is now doing a BSc in Health and Social Care and is a Health Befriender for the Refugee Council, supporting other women with insecure immigration status to access maternity care.
The Government must realise it is completely unacceptable to use pregnant women as a political pawn in its drive to be seen as tough on immigration by restricting access to NHS services.
Charging for primary healthcare will extenuate existing barriers vulnerable women like Josephine face in accessing medical care.
Delays in maternity care increase the risk to both mother and baby, and may increase the costs to the NHS. But the potential human cost is immeasurable.