With France's health system strained due to the coronavirus crisis, dozens of migrants with health sector experience in their countries of origin have volunteered their services | Photo: REUTERS
With France's health system strained due to the coronavirus crisis, dozens of migrants with health sector experience in their countries of origin have volunteered their services | Photo: REUTERS

With the French health services overwhelmed during the coronavirus crisis, dozens of refugees and asylum seekers with medical expertise in their home countries are ready to volunteer their services as a gesture of "gratitude." However, most are still waiting for a chance to help.

"At the beginning of the epidemic, watching the news on TV about the number of patients in emergency rooms and the overload on the health services was very disturbing," explained Bayan Ustwani, a 53-year-old Syrian refugee who has been living in France for five years. The news was particularly disturbing for Ustwani since he has skills and experience in the medical sector but could not put them to use in France's hour of need.

Ustwani, a pharmacist in Syria, has not practiced since he left his native country since he does not have French qualifications or an "equivalence" diploma. "To get it, I had to go back to school for several years and I simply couldn't – I had to work right away," explained Ustwani, who also holds a commerce degree.

The inability to put his medical skills to work during the latest unprecedented public health crisis has been frustrating. "I can do a lot of things: running a monitor, making antibacterial gel from mixtures or whatever," he said.  

In March, as soon as France's nationwide lockdown began, Ustwani coordinated with a dozen other migrant healthcare workers who were members of the Facebook group, "Syrian doctors and pharmacists in France" to offer their help "to the Ministry of Health, the Prime Minister and the Red Cross."

"If France needs us, we are ready and willing to help, even on a voluntary basis," said Ustwani, who explained he wanted to help out as an act of "gratitude to France."

An extraordinary appeal

As the deadly pandemic continued to spread, the French health ministry on March 25 launched an appeal for active and retired health professionals to volunteer to help their overextended colleagues cope with the crisis.

It was an expansive mobilization call in a sector known for its strict authorization requirements. To facilitate the use of all volunteers, France's Inter-ministerial Delegation for the Reception and Integration of Refugees stated that refugees with diplomas from outside the European Union (EU), who had worked in their countries of origin as doctors, dental surgeons or pharmacists, were authorized to work in French public institutions, but "under a contractual status" and under the supervision of an accredited doctor.

In a sign of the urgent nature of the situation, the government extended these conditions "during the crisis" to "foreign nationals who do not have refugee status" in France.

A decree was also published on April 1 authorizing doctors, dental surgeons, midwives and pharmacists, with diplomas from outside the EU, to practice in some of France's overseas territories, which are considered "less attractive" in the health sector.

'I'll do anything to help'

There has been no shortage of good will among migrants in France who have worked in health services in their countries of origin. A number of WhatsApp groups, similar to Ustwani's Facebook group, have been set up among migrant candidates.

"I'll do anything to help," said Mohamed, a 39-year-old Libyan, quoted in a statement on the UN refugee agency UNHCR website. "I can work in the emergency department of a hospital in any position. I can be an assistant nurse, I can help give out information. For all these positions, it's very important to have hospital staff who know how to deal with such a situation."

Françoise Henry, secretary general of the Association for the Reception of Refugee Doctors and Health Workers in France, known by the French acronym APSR, says she is in contact with five professionals who applied for positions in the Paris region, one of the country's biggest outbreak clusters. "They are people from French-speaking Africa, so they have a mastery of the language. One of them is an Algerian asylum seeker who was a nurse for 20 years," said Henry, noting that the former nurse had already done two applications for recruitment in Essonne, a department around 50 kilometres south of Paris. 

"They could help with basic tasks, such as turning over a patient, which is an act that requires a lot of staff," explained Henry.

'We must not forget the talents of refugees'

However, many such refugees or asylum seekers were still waiting for a response to their applications. Henry acknowledged that as of April 15, none of the professionals she was in contact with had received a call.

Of the ten or so health professionals on Ustwani’s Facebook group, only one, an ENT surgeon, had been contacted by a health establishment after sending out his application. "I'm a bit surprised, but that's how it is," said Ustwani.

Faced with this situation, which goes beyond the borders of France, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and the Council of Europe have urged EU countries to use refugee health service staff who have the necessary skills and experience. "At this critical time, we must not forget the talents of refugees," said Céline Schmitt, UNHCR spokesperson in France. "Especially since we really feel this desire on the part of health professionals to help the countries that have taken them in."

One of the tools to best organize these reinforcements would be, according to UNHCR, the European Refugee Qualification Passport.

Set up in 2017, the project issues a document providing an assessment of the higher education qualifications as well as information on the applicant's work experience and language proficiency. The system can "help establish a list of pre-assessed refugee health practitioners" and thus enable national health authorities to determine how best to deploy them if and when necessary. For Schmitt, the value of the European Refugee Qualification Passport is evident. "The expertise exists," she explains, "and the solutions as well."


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