Abstract – Access to health care for undocumented migrants from a human rights perspective: A comparative study of Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands

Dan Biswas, Brigit Toebes, Anders Hjern, Henry Ascher, Marie Norredam

Health and Human rights 14/2

Published December 2012


Undocumented migrants’ access to health care varies across Europe, and entitlements on national levels are often at odds with the rights stated in international human rights law. The aim of this study is to address undocumented migrants’ access to health care in Denmark, Sweden, and the Netherlands from a human rights perspective.

Based on desk research in October 2011, we identified national laws, policies, peer-reviewed studies, and grey literature concerning undocumented migrants’ access to health care in the three involved countries. Through treaties and related explanatory documents from the United Nations and the Council of Europe, we identified relevant international laws concerning the right to health and the rights of different groups of undocumented migrants. A synopsis of these laws is included in the analysis of the three countries.

Undocumented migrants in Denmark have the right to emergency care, while additional care is restricted and may be subject to payment. Undocumented migrants in Sweden have the right to emergency care only. There is an exception made for former asylum-seeking children, who have the same rights as Swedish citizens. In the Netherlands, undocumented migrants have greater entitlements and have access to primary, secondary and tertiary care, although shortcomings remain. All three countries have ratified international human rights treaties that include right of access to health care services. We identified international treaties from the United Nations and the Council of Europe that recognize a right to health for undocumented migrants and embrace governmental obligations to ensure the availability, accessibility, acceptability, and quality of health services, in particular for specific groups such as women and children.

In the Netherlands, undocumented migrants’ right to health care is largely acknowledged, while in Denmark and Sweden, there are more restrictions on access. This reveals major discrepancies in relation to international human rights law.