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Soc Sci Med. 2009 Apr;68(8):1552-60. doi: 10.1016/j.socscimed.2009.01.024. Epub 2009 Feb 25.

Illegality as risk factor: a survey of unauthorized migrant patients in a Berlin clinic.

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University of South Florida, Anthropology, Tampa, FL 33620-8100, USA.


Unauthorized migrants face health disadvantages in many receiving nations. However, few studies have explored precisely how the condition of "illegality" influences illness experiences, medical treatment, and convalescence. This article presents a case study from Germany (2004-2006 and 2008), where unauthorized migrants face limited access to health care and the threat of deportation results in avoidance of services and treatment delays. This is confounded by unique laws which essentially criminalize health care workers for aiding migrants. This article provides a snapshot of 183 patients who attended a Berlin clinic that functions as the single largest source of medical assistance for unauthorized persons in Germany. The demographic information sketches a picture of labor migrants with a mean age of approximately 29 years. More women than men presented at this clinic, a result of its ability to successfully arrange prenatal care and delivery as well as a reflection of local labor markets. The diversity of countries of origin (n=55) is surprising, underscoring the utility of using illegal status as a unifying variable to highlight migrants' shared position in the global economy and the resulting barriers to basic medical services. Patients presented with a range of illnesses typical for their age group. However, the effects of illegal status resulted in four areas of disparities: 1) limits to the overall quality and quantity of care for mothers and infants; 2) delayed presentation and difficulties accessing a regular supply of medication for patients with chronic illnesses; 3) difficulties in accessing immediate medical attention for unpredictable injuries and other acute health concerns; and 4) a lack of mental health care options for generalized stress and anxiety affecting health. In Germany, an incoherent policy environment contributes to inadequate services and treatment delays. Solutions must address these legal ambiguities, which represent a primary barrier to equity in a nation with otherwise universal health coverage.

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