In France and the UK, many migrants are refusing to get tested for COVID-19. Non-profit organizations worry that migrants' distrust of public authorities will interfere with their willingness to get vaccinated.
The public health authority in the UK, the National Health Service (NHS), clearly stated that no one will be asked to pay for immunization. "The Covid vaccine is free. The NHS will never ask you for your bank details, credit card number or code, or copies of personal documents to prove your identity".
UK authorities on February 8 specified that coronavirus vaccines would be offered "free of charge to all those living in the UK, irrespective of their migratory status." The statement was aimed at overcoming the mistrust of those who are in the UK illegally.
Some estimates put the number of undocumented migrants in the UK as high as 1.3 million. This population, said Doctors of the World in a recent press release, is "disproportionately affected by the virus."
People living in precarious situations face an "increased risk of contamination," the charity said. It further stressed the importance of free healthcare and of not collecting data from people who have been vaccinated so that they do not feel they are on file.
France: Little testing
France, which faces the same problem of mistrust on the part of migrants, could follow the example of its English neighbor.
According to estimates published in October 2020 by the Abbé-Pierre Foundation, there are nearly 300,000 homeless people in France: about 185,000 in accommodation centers, 100,000 in reception centers for asylum seekers and 16,000 in make-shift camps.
Their living conditions make it very difficult to accurately estimate the number of migrants infected with the virus. A few screening campaigns have been conducted, notably during the evacuation of the Saint-Denis camp (in the Paris region) last November. Out of 2,300 tests performed, only 15 positive cases were detected at that time.
"It was a much lower result than we expected," said Luc Ginot, Director of Public Health at the Île-de-France Regional Health Agency (ARS). In the field, however, the teams are not letting their guard down, as some of the sites have seen clusters develop. They try to isolate people with symptoms.
The challenge of vaccinating
At the same time, ARS is working on the vaccination of migrants. Migrants can receive the vaccine if they fall into the category of people who have priority eligibility in France: These are people who are considered most vulnerable to the virus and most likely to develop severe forms of the disease.
"We know that we are going to face particular difficulties [in vaccinating migrants] because it is obvious that some people can't take the necessary steps to make an appointment for vaccination. The networks of associations and activists will be there to help them," Ginot said.
Many migrants mistrust public authorities and may fear being registered at the time of vaccination. Corinne Torre, head of mission at Doctors Without Borders, believes there needs to be an "awareness raising" campaign to reassure migrants.
She welcomed the release by the health authorities of explanatory documents in 17 languages. And her organization is campaigning for a common social security number to be given to all people without a French medical identity card, so that the number of people vaccinated can still be counted.
Giving migrants the second dose of vaccine several weeks after the first will also be challenging. It can be difficult to locate people who are homeless and it is sometimes very difficult to contact them again. Migrant aid associations and medical NGOs will try to address that challenge in the coming months.