Policy that denies care to cancer patients must end, says Refugee Council - Refugee Council
June 29, 2006

Policy that denies care to cancer patients must end, says Refugee Council

Charging “failed” asylum seekers for healthcare is having a devastating human impact and the policy should be scrapped immediately, claims a new report from the Refugee Council.

Patients denied treatment for cancer and pregnant women forced to give birth alone at home are among the cases highlighted in the report, published today (Thursday 29th June).

Since refused asylum seekers – those whose claims have been turned down – were prevented from accessing free secondary healthcare two years ago(1), incidents have included:

  • A destitute Romanian who had an operation for stomach cancer but was then billed £1085 and denied follow-up radiotherapy
  • A bowel cancer sufferer who had a scheduled operation cancelled when the hospital found out he was a refused asylum seeker. He was told to come back “when his condition deteriorates”
  • An insulin-dependent diabetic in renal failure charged £70,000 for treatment
  • An Eritrean tested positive for HIV but then refused treatment
  • A rape victim, denied access to care by a GP

Asylum seekers whose claims have been turned down may remain in this country for various genuine reasons – for example, appealing against the decision – but will have little or no income. Many are presented with bills, even for a few hundred pounds, which effectively prevent them from accessing care. Others are ‘chased’ by debt collection firms.

Maeve Sherlock, Chief Executive of the Refugee Council, said:

“Since these regulations came in, we have seen the devastating effect they have had for families, elderly people, cancer sufferers and pregnant women. They are sick, they need help, and unless they can pay – which most can’t, as they are destitute – they are denied treatment. No-one in the UK should be in that position.”

She added: “This policy can do nothing but harm, and puts staff in a terrible position because it is directly opposed to the basic ethics of the medical profession.”

Backing the report, Dr Vivienne Nathanson, Head of Science and Ethics at the BMA said:

“The Refugee Council’s report on the plight of failed asylum seekers is very distressing. The BMA has expressed its concern about the health of failed asylum seekers awaiting deportation many times. These people often have no access to money and it is totally unjustifiable and inhumane to leave them suffering from ill-health for unspecified periods of time.”

Part of the rationale for introducing the charges was to cut down on ‘health tourism’, but the report points out that there is no evidence to suggest that asylum seekers come to this country for healthcare.

“Fleeing from your country and claiming asylum is not an easy option. People may have suffered persecution, imprisonment and worse in their homeland, then endured a dangerous and difficult journey to get here and finally they have to battle with an asylum system that often treats them very harshly.

“It is ridiculous to imagine that anyone would go through this just so that they could access free healthcare on the NHS. People come here for our protection, and if they are sick while they are here, we should help them. It’s as simple as that,” said Ms Sherlock.

The report, ‘First do no harm: Denying healthcare to refused asylum seekers’ includes details of 37 cases which highlight the problem. It calls on the Department of Health to amend the regulations which exclude asylum seekers from free healthcare, and calls for more support and guidance for health care bodies.

The NHS (Charges to Overseas Visitors)(Amendment) Regulation was brought in on April 1st 2004. It applies to asylum seekers who are Appeals Rights Exhausted (ARE).

The only types of treatment that remain free to failed asylum seekers are family planning services, compulsory mental health care, and treatment for a range of communicable diseases. They can receive free treatment within the confines of A&E, but once they are moved to another part of the hospital, they must pay. Treatment provided in STD clinics is free, except treatment for HIV/AIDS. HIV testing and counselling is free, but treatment is only provided to those who can afford to pay.

No ARE asylum seeker has access to any legal source of income, apart from borrowing from family and friends. A small number receive Section 4 support if, for example, they are about to leave the UK or cannot leave for genuine reasons, but these receive only either full board accommodation or accommodation and vouchers.

As many as 20% of asylum seekers and refugees have severe health problems that make their day to day life difficult. Between 5% and 30% of asylum seekers have been tortured (both references, Burnett & Peel, BMJ 2001).


For further information and interviews contact press office: Chris Pitt 0207 346 1213 (Switchboard: 0207 346 6700). For urgent or out of hours inquiries ring 0870 0555500 and ask for pager 865169.

Further information

Download the report: First do no harm: denying healthcare to people whose asylum claims have failed (June 2006)