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BMC Med Res Methodol. 2014 Feb 19;14:27. doi: 10.1186/1471-2288-14-27.

Use of country of birth as an indicator of refugee background in health datasets.

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Monash Centre for Health Research and Implementation, School of Public Health and Preventive Medicine, Monash University, Locked Bag 29, Clayton, VIC 3168, Australia.



Routine public health databases contain a wealth of data useful for research among vulnerable or isolated groups, who may be under-represented in traditional medical research. Identifying specific vulnerable populations, such as resettled refugees, can be particularly challenging; often country of birth is the sole indicator of whether an individual has a refugee background. The objective of this article was to review strengths and weaknesses of different methodological approaches to identifying resettled refugees and comparison groups from routine health datasets and to propose the application of additional methodological rigour in future research.


Methodological approaches to selecting refugee and comparison groups from existing routine health datasets vary widely and are often explained in insufficient detail. Linked data systems or datasets from specialized refugee health services can accurately select resettled refugee and asylum seeker groups but have limited availability and can be selective. In contrast, country of birth is commonly collected in routine health datasets but a robust method for selecting humanitarian source countries based solely on this information is required. The authors recommend use of national immigration data to objectively identify countries of birth with high proportions of humanitarian entrants, matched by time period to the study dataset. When available, additional migration indicators may help to better understand migration as a health determinant. Methodologically, if multiple countries of birth are combined, the proportion of the sample represented by each country of birth should be included, with sub-analysis of individual countries of birth potentially providing further insights, if population size allows. United Nations-defined world regions provide an objective framework for combining countries of birth when necessary. A comparison group of economic migrants from the same world region may be appropriate if the resettlement country is particularly diverse ethnically or the refugee group differs in many ways to those born in the resettlement country.


Routine health datasets are valuable resources for public health research; however rigorous methods for using country of birth to identify resettled refugees would optimize usefulness of these resources.

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