Undocumented immigrants’ right to health services in Finland needs improvement

Jukka Uotila / The Finnish Medical Association
Undocumented immigrants also need proper healthcare in Finland.
Image: Jukka Uotila / The Finnish Medical Association

The ‘Paperittomat’ network (‘the undocumented network’): Equal access to healthcare services is a fundamental human right.

According to the Paperittomat network, an organisation network working with undocumented people, this right is unavailable to undocumented people i.e. foreigners staying in the country without an official residence permit.

Finnish legislation only guarantees them the necessary emergency healthcare at their own cost. This means that undocumented people must pay the actual price of the treatment. They have no access to basic healthcare, and receiving necessary treatment may not be possible due to its costs.

- In addition to the lack of money, the fear of someone calling the police may prevent people from seeking treatment. In individual cases, this can lead to inhuman circumstances, says Marja-Liisa Laihia, coordinator of the work with migrants and refugees in the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland.

Organisations working with undocumented immigrants in Finland are facing serious issues concerning access to treatment and treatment continuity. In a few cities, the concern individual organisations and physicians feel for the undocumented population’s healthcare situation has lead to the establishment of volunteer clinics. However, resources are limited and the clinics can only provide basic healthcare. They have no possibility for laboratory or imaging tests.

- The most vulnerable groups of people come to the clinic, including pregnant women and chronically ill elderly people, but we cannot help them. We do not have the resources to give children vaccinations or monitor their growth and provide dental care, says physician Paula Tiittala from Global Clinic in Helsinki.

The network of organisations working with undocumented people demands an equal right to healthcare service for the undocumented. Guaranteeing healthcare would comply with international agreements concerning equal access to healthcare, such as the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child, and the UN International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights.

- It is especially important that we can implement women's right to medical care during pregnancy and safe delivery, and comprehensive healthcare for children, says physician Minna Nikula at Pro Centre Finland.

Last year, the same recommendation was the conclusion of a Swedish government report concerning the access of undocumented people to healthcare: equal state‑subsidised healthcare must be available to everyone regardless of residence permit status. Confidentiality among hospital staff must also be ensured in order to guarantee patient safety and professional ethics among physicians. The fear of being captured by the authorities must not prevent individuals seeking or receiving treatment.

- Sweden reached a political compromise on the treatment of undocumented people this year. The state will guarantee undocumented children the same rights as permanent child‑residents. Adults will receive the necessary medical treatment on the basis of a physician’s evaluation. This covers maternity services. “This would be a great step in the right direction in Finland too, says Leena-Kaisa Åberg, Assistant Secretary at the Finnish Red Cross.

The healthcare of undocumented people was trial tested in Skåne in Sweden. According to Anne Sjögren from the Swedish Red Cross, the annual costs remained at the level of €35,000.

- The number of undocumented people living in Finland is smaller than in Sweden, so the costs would be lower. Strict residency permit policies increase the number of undocumented people. For example, work permits are difficult to get due to labour political ‘availability consideration'. Foreigners who arrive in the country cannot be punished for this. Undocumented people are also entitled to healthcare services, says Katja Tuominen at the Vapaa liikkuvuus (free mobility) network.

The Finnish Medical Association and Global Clinic will organise a related seminar entitled ‘How to secure healthcare for the “undocumented” – seeking solutions’ on 27 September 2012.

The Paperittomat network operators include:

  • Global Clinic
  • Emmaus Helsinki
  • Lääkärin sosiaalinen vastuu ry
  • Multicultural Women's Association (Monika-naiset liitto ry)
  • the Refugee Advice Centre’s Paperittomat project
  • Pro Centre Finland
  • the Evangelical Lutheran Church of Finland’s multicultural work unit
  • the Finnish Association for Mental Health
  • the Finnish Refugee Council
  • the Finnish Red Cross
  • No Fixed Abode NGO (Vailla vakinaista asuntoa ry)
  • the Vapaa liikkuvuus (free mobility) network.