Could Covid-19 lead to increased access to healthcare for irregular migrants in Norway?
With the outbreak of the pandemic, health workers in Norway have seen slight changes in the authorities’ willingness to provide access to healthcare for irregular migrants. Hopes are that these changes will stay on even after Covid-19.
Since the pandemic outbreak there has been increased concern among migration scholars and practitioners about the potential negative effects that this development may have for migrants, refugees and asylum seekers (Reidy, 2020; UNHCR, 2020).
In Norway, a country where irregular migrants had severely limited access to health care before the pandemic (Bendixsen, 2018), closed volunteer-centres and activities have caused an even more precarious situation for this group of migrants (Holte, 2020). However, those working to assist irregular migrants in the Norwegian capital have seen slight changes in the authorities’ willingness to provide healthcare for these migrants.
Linnea Näsholm, manager at the only health centre for irregular migrants in Oslo, claims that it might be that the authorities now realise the severity of the situation for irregular migrants in this country.
Näsholm refers specifically to the fact that the city council of Oslo has appointed one public medical doctor that will treat irregular migrants during this crisis. In addition, dental care has been promised to those with urgent needs. This is surprising considering that only last year the city council denied the request for allowing irregular migrants access to dental care.
Limited Access to Healthcare
Over the past decade, irregular migrants’ access to healthcare has been circumvented and increasingly restricted, excluding irregular migrants from the welfare-state, which offer comprehensive welfare provisions to all legal residents (Bendixen, 2018). The legal framework now entails that irregular migrants are only entitled to emergency care that could not be delayed ‘without danger of imminent death, permanent and seriously reduced functionality, serious injury, or severe pain’ (Healthcare Regulation 2011).
As in other European countries, irregular migrants in Norway have gained extended rights to healthcare under the pandemic crisis due to the act on infectious diseases. Nonetheless, the fact that the city council of Oslo has allowed these new developments regarding access to healthcare is rather remarkable when seen in light of the increased marginalisation of irregular migrants that have been registered in Norway (Bendixsen, 2018).
Bendixen argues that the “Nordic Welfare Model”, characterised by a publicly funded healthcare system, represents comprehensive control management by the government. The exclusion of migrants from healthcare is thus understood as migration management and a way of encouraging migrants to return to their countries of origin. Limiting migrants´ access to public services is arguably a common practice to control unwanted migration in countries with large welfare systems (Van der Leun, 2006).
There are only a few volunteer-based health centres in the country provide health services to irregular migrants. In Oslo, the health centre mentioned above, open two days a week, provides such services. The centre is run by volunteers and five employees (Bendixsen, Jacobsen, & Søvig, 2015).
Näsholm has worked at the health centre for several years. She explains that they have been very outspoken about the risk to life and health posed by not providing healthcare to this group of migrants. They have been even more vocal after the Covid-19 pandemic outbreak in March.
Increased access to healthcare in the aftermath of COVID-19?
For Näsholm, the lack of health care to irregular migrants in Norway makes them more prone to contract other diseases and illnesses, which in turn poses a great risk for society in general.
Her concern is that irregular migrants could potentially be more at risk to get Covid-19, unknowingly, and that irregular migrants with untreated illnesses can develop a more severe infection if they do get it. During the pandemic, the centre lacked volunteers, and could no longer maintain a sufficient level of disease and infection control, leading to the centre closing down in March.
In the months following the closure they have been able to re-open with reduced capacity, now offering telephone consultations and an outside reception facility open twice a week. Additionally, the newly appointed publicly funded medical doctor have been accessible for irregular migrants in Oslo. The doctor has been assigned to see patients one day a week, which to Näsholm is far too little considering the needs among the patients.
She hopes that the pandemic outbreak has created awareness concerning the implications of not providing health care to irregular migrants in Norway. Näsholm further explains that the city council of Oslo has increasingly been listening to their demands, especially now during the pandemic. The publicly funded medical doctor now allocated to specifically assist irregular migrants is an example.
Still, Näsholm is stressing that these are only local solutions, available in Oslo. She pinpoints the importance of national authorities to realise the severity of the situation that irregular migrants live under all across Norway.
Bendixsen, S. (2018). The Politicised Biology of Irregular Migrants: Micropractices of control, tactics of everyday life and access to healthcare. Nordic Journal of Migration Research, 8(3), 167-174.
Bendixsen, S., Jacobsen, C. M., & Søvig, K. H. (2015). Eksepsjonell velferd? : irregulære migranter i det norske velferdssamfunnet. Oslo: Gyldendal juridisk.
Healthcare Regulation 2011. Forskrift om rett til helse- og omsorgstjenester til personer uten fast opphold I riket (IRM- helseforskriften) 16. desember 2011 nr. 1255. («Regulation concerning the right to health and care services to people without fixed abode in the country») .
Holte, E. A. (2020). Helsesenteret for papirløse migranter er stengt. Retrieved from https://www.utrop.no/nyheter/nytt/210451/
Reidy, E. (2020). The COVID-19 excuse? How migration policies are hardening around the globe. Retrieved from https://www.thenewhumanitarian.org/analysis/2020/04/17/coronavirus-global-migration-policies-exploited
UNHCR. (2020). Live blog: Refugees in the COVID-19 crisis. Retrieved from https://www.unhcr.org/news/stories/2020/4/5e79e2410/live-blog-refugees-covid-19-crisis.html
Van der Leun, J. (2006). Excluding illegal migrants in the Netherlands: Between national policies and local implementation. West European Politics, 29(2), 310-326.
Thea Rabe is a PhD student in sociology at Nord University, focusing on civilian support to migrants in Europe. Her PhD project looks into assistance from Scandinavian citizens to irregular migrants in Europe, and young Afghan migrants in particular. Rabe has a master’s degree in political science from the University of Amsterdam. She holds a bachelor’s degree in political science from the University of Oslo and a bachelor’s degree in journalism from Volda University College. Before starting her PhD, she worked as a senior advisor for the Norwegian Red Cross.
(Photo: Olav Saltbones/ Norwegian Red Cross)