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UNECE calls for active strategies to meet older migrants’ economic, social and healthcare needs

Published: 07 September 2016

In recent decades, the number of international migrants globally has grown faster than the world’s population. While the current refugee crisis has drawn the focus of attention to newly arriving asylum seekers, the UNECE region has long been a destination for migrants. In Northern and Western Europe, the bulk of today’s migrants over the age of 65 came in the decades after World War II as labour migrants and have since grown older and retired in their host country. In Eastern European countries the number of older migrants partly results from managed migration within the Soviet Union and increased migration flows between the successor states of the Soviet Union in the early 1990s. Whilst many migrants choose to grow old in their host country, the international mobility of older persons is on the increase with more and more people migrating at an older age.

The result is that today, UNECE countries host about 22.3 million migrants aged 65 and above. There are however huge discrepancies between the proportion of older migrants in UNECE countries and different factors influencing the size and composition of older migrant populations.

What is common across and within many countries though is that older migrants are often more vulnerable than native-born peers to poor health and socio-economic conditions, social isolation and exclusion. Yet in research, sometimes due to lack of data, older migrants are often overlooked, resulting in poor awareness of issues and challenges and an absence of policy responses. The latest issue of the UNECE Policy Briefs on Ageing addresses this shortcoming by exploring the situation of older migrants and by highlighting strategies to promote their integration, participation and well-being.

The brief proposes strategies that will remove the barriers of access to health and social care, social protection and formal employment. Such measures serve to improve the well-being of older migrants and reduce social friction in society. The brief identifies three main areas in which targeted efforts are needed:  

  1.  Accessibility of health and social care services

Access to health and social care services for older migrants is often compromised by a lack of clear and relevant information about available healthcare options and insurance schemes with rigid eligibility criteria and high premiums. In the case of vulnerable groups of older migrants, the barriers are even more fixed: for asylum seekers, whilst awaiting the results of their asylum application, access to some services can be denied; for undocumented migrants, emergency care may be underutilized due to fears of being reported to authorities. Free of charge health care on the basis of anonymity is a good option to increase health care coverage among undocumented migrants and asylum seekers.

Language and cultural barriers also limit accessibility, hampering knowledge acquisition of the local healthcare system, exacerbating bureaucratic challenges and reducing the uptake and positive outcomes of medical treatments. Solutions should be sought through the provision of free translation and interpretation services, multilingual care staff and culturally sensitive care that better adapts to the patient’s own value system. One best practice example is the Telephone Translation Service in Portugal – a free service offering translation into 52 languages to improve communication between immigrants and public institutions, including healthcare.  

  2.  Social protection and pension portability

Policies to ensure the social protection and portability of pensions are important measures that can help older migrants achieve financial security.  Bi- or multilateral agreements on the portability of pensions warrant that insurance periods can be transferred to another country – a crucial development in a time when there are an increasing number of older people with pension insurance periods in more than one country.  Best practices come from collaboration between Germany/Austria and Turkey, and within the European Union which has the most comprehensive framework on pensions and healthcare insurance portability.

  3.  Participation in community life

Participation in community life can be promoted by removing barriers to social inclusion. This includes the provision of accessible, affordable and flexible language courses adapted to older migrants’ learning styles, free translation and interpretation services, and local support groups that can be a helpful way to fight depression and loneliness. An excellent example comes from the Netherlands where emotional support is offered by volunteers to older Muslim migrants who may feel lonely or have questions about the purpose and meaning of life.

The Policy Brief series can be found at: www.unece.org/population/ageing/policybriefs


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