Access to Health Care – A Human Right

December 5, 2007

By profession, I’m a speech and language therapist. I work with children with special needs. I worked some years ago with a little boy from a refugee family.

The child’s father was a political opponent of the regime in the country they lived. One evening, soldiers came to the family home, looking for the father. He was in hiding – he’d been tipped off they were coming. A soldier picked up the child, swung him by the legs, and smashed his head against the wall.  The child was left brain damaged. The father was arrested later and brutally beaten. He was eventually released.

The family spent every last penny they had escaping from their own country. They believed their lives were at risk, and had good reason to do so. They ended up in London.

I worked with the child, and with both parents. Both parents were incredibly decent, caring, dignified human beings. They were given the run-around around by the local education authority, and had a huge fight on their hands to get their child the support he needed in school. This happens a lot to parents with English as a second language, because they’re less equipped to battle their way through a complex system, and it’s easier for education authorities to fob them off with inadequate provision and save money by doing so. The family won that particular fight. The child was settled in school with specialist support. He had regular speech and language therapy input from me. He had input from a specialist paediatrician, and a range of other health care professionals. He began to make steady progress.

Unfortunately the Home Office didn’t believe their story. The primary care team from the local NHS argued that it would be damaging to the child if he was deported. We were ignored. I went with the child’s father to visit the local Labour MP – I remember to this day the sneer on his face and the way he distanced himself as soon as he found out that he was talking to a refugee (never mind a failed refugee). The whole family was eventually deported.

I was disgusted then. I was disgusted in 2004, when the Government barred asylum seekers from receiving hospital treatment for anything short of an emergency. I’m even more disgusted to hear of the latest proposals to deny ‘failed’ refugees access to primary care. This is genuinely shocking. This means that children with disabilities will be denied access to speech therapy, physiotherapy, occupational therapy and so on. The quality of their lives will be worse, and in some cases their lives will inevitably be shorter. Access to GP services will be lost. Traumatised adults will no longer be able to access mental health services. Pregnant women will be denied antenatal care. It’s hard to conceive of how any politician with half a brain could regard this as a morally acceptable approach to health care provision.

The charity Medact is campaigning to defend the rights of asylum seekers and migrants in accessing health care. Medact is holding a public meeting in Parliament on 11th December, and is calling on MPs to sign Early Day Motion 220. Visit Medact’s website for further information: http://medact.org/

This is a Government that has entirely lost its way. War in Iraq and Afghanistan has destroyed countless lives. At home, public services are being dismantled. Where party funding is concerned, the Labour party is sinking ever deeper into sleaze. And the attacks on refugees – some of the most vulnerable people in our society – reveal the Government’s contempt and disregard for human beings. We need to work harder than we ever have done before to defend our NHS. We certainly won’t save the NHS by joining in the vicious scapegoating of refugees.

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