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Millions of Migrants Face Health Risks

The World Health Organization and International Organization for Migration say many of the nearly one-billion international and internal migrants around the world suffer from ill health because of stress and exploitative work conditions. The Geneva-based agencies, along with the government of Spain, are sponsoring a Madrid conference, Wednesday through Friday, to explore ways to improve the health of migrants.

The two agencies say most migrants are healthy. But, those who are not tend to be among the estimated 214 million migrants who leave their countries in search of a better life abroad.

These disadvantaged groups include undocumented migrants, people forced to migrate because of natural or man-made disasters and groups such as victims of trafficking. The agencies say these migrants often suffer exploitation and physical and mental abuse.

WHO Senior Migrant Health Officer Jacqueline Weekers says migrants also are more susceptible to ill health because many live in poverty. She says they lack access to health and social services and social protection.

"Think of living in overcrowded settings," Weekers said. "Think of lack of proper nutrition over long periods of times, etc. But, also unattended chronic problems will cause a great burden on the health of migrants over time. We need to think of occupational health issues. Most migrants migrate because they look for work and they end up in work situations that are degrading, dangerous and dirty. They do jobs that many others will not do and very often without health insurance."

Weekers notes more than half of all migrants are women. Many have migrated on their own. She says women migrants who are in an unprotected situation often are subjected to sexual abuse.

She says the mental health of migrants is another area of great concern.

"Mental health is not only of relevance for those who experience grave stressful situations such as refugees or people who are on the go, who experience human rights violations," Weekers said. "But, also the many migrants who find themselves greatly isolated and marginalized and not able to communicate with people around them."

The World Health Assembly, which took place in Geneva in 2008 passed a resolution on the Health of Migrants. The issue will come up again at this year's assembly, in May.

Weekers says the three-day conference in Madrid will take stock of what has happened since the resolution was adopted two years ago. She says the aim of the meeting is to identify policies and legislation that will improve the health of migrants.