May 16, 2019

CONTACT: Karen Teber /

EMBARGOED: Thursday, May 16, 2019; 6:30 p.m. ET

WASHINGTON — The World Health Assembly should “adopt, and robustly implement” the World Health Organization’s Global Action Plan (GAP) to Protect the Health of Refugees and Migrants to better achieve the human right to health for the world’s most vulnerable people.

That call to action comes from WHO leaders and other global health law experts, published online today in The Lancet (May 18). They call migration “a defining issue of our time,” noting that there are one billion migrants globally with a quarter of them having crossed borders.

Health ministry leaders representing WHO’s 194 member states will gather next week for the 72nd World Health Assembly in Geneva to decide priorities and strategies for the World Health Organization. The future of health for migrants and refugees is among the highest priorities.

“While there are disparate laws––country by country––governing the humane care and treatment of migrants and refugees, there is one universal right.  All migrants and refugees must be afforded the human right to quality health care,” says the lead author of The Lancet “Comment, Lawrence Gostin, faculty director of Georgetown University’s O’Neill Institute for National and Global Health Law, and director of a WHO Collaborating Center on National and Global Health Law. “While treating all people humanely and fairly might be intuitive to many, it will take WHO action and strong national laws to ensure equal access to quality health care, and to enforce this basic human right.”

In 2017, WHO’s Executive Board directed WHO to draft a framework of priorities and guiding principles to promote refugee and migrant health. WHO invited member states to submit evidence-based information, best practices, experiences and lessons learned in meeting the health needs of migrants and refugees. WHO received responses from 90 member states in every WHO region, and from partners, including the International Labour Organization, the International Organization for Migration and the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The action plan’s priorities encompass quality healthcare, occupational health and safety, mental health, public health, and social determinants of health for refugees.

“This is a pivotal moment to fulfil the pledge to universal health coverage and to health equity,” write the authors of The Lancet piece. In addition to Gostin, authors include Ibrahim Abubakar of Institute for Global Health, University College London; Ranieri Guerra and Zsuzsanna Jakab of the World Health Organization; Sabina F. Rashid of BRAC James P. Grant School of Public Health, BRAC University, Dhaka, Bangladesh; and Eric A. Friedman, of the O’Neill Institute.

“A key step is for every state to develop a national action plan to implement the GAP priorities, embedding migrants’ health-rights into domestic law. Affording migrants and refugees access to health and social protection on a fully equal basis would transform the lives of the world’s most vulnerable people. Their health will determine human development for decades to come,” the authors write.

“One in four people around the world are migrants,” Gostin concludes. “With climate change and political instability, even more of us will be on the move. Migrants are often among the world’s most vulnerable people, deserving safe and humane conditions and high-quality health care. As a global community, we promised to ‘leave no one behind.’ Unless we afford migrants equal benefits, the health equity gap will only widen. And that is unconscionable.”

The World Health Assembly runs May 20 through the 28th.

To interview Gostin, contact him at