Experiencing 'pathologized presence and normalized absence'; understanding health related experiences and access to health care among Iraqi and Somali asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status

BMC Public Health. 2015 Sep 19;15:923. doi: 10.1186/s12889-015-2279-z.


Background: Asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status have been reported to experience a range of difficulties when accessing public services and supports in the UK. While research has identified health care barriers to equitable access such as language difficulties, it has not considered the broader social contexts of marginalization experienced through the dynamics of 'othering'. The current study explores health and health care experiences of Somali and Iraqi asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status, highlighting 'minoritization' processes and the 'pathologization' of difference as analytical lenses to understand the multiple layers of oppression that contribute to health inequities.

Methods: For the study, qualitative methods were used to document the lived experiences of asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status. Thirty-five in-depth interviews and five focus groups were used to explore personal accounts, reveal shared understandings and enable social, cognitive and emotional understandings of on-going health problems and challenges when seeking treatment and care. A participatory framework was undertaken which inspired collaborative workings with local organizations that worked directly with asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status.

Results: The analysis revealed four key themes: 1) pre-departure histories and post-arrival challenges; 2) legal status; 3) health knowledges and procedural barriers as well as 4) language and cultural competence. Confidentiality, trust, wait times and short doctor-patient consultations were emphasized as being insufficient for culturally specific communications and often translating into inadequate treatment and care. Barriers to accessing health care was associated with social disadvantage and restrictions of the broader welfare system suggesting that a re-evaluation of the asylum seeking process is required to improve the situation.

Discussions: Macro- and micro-level intersections of accustomed societal beliefs, practices and norms, broad-level legislation and policy decisions, and health care and social services delivery methods have affected the health and health care experiences of forced migrants that reside in the UK. Research highlights how 'minoritization processes,' influencing the intersections between social identities, can hinder access to and delivery of health and social services to vulnerable groups. Similar findings were reported here; and the most influential mechanism directly impacting health and access to health and social services was legal status.

Conclusions: Equitable health care provision requires systemic change that incorporate understandings of marginalization, 'othering' processes and the intersections between the past histories and everyday realities of asylum seekers, refugees and persons without legal status.

Publication types

  • Research Support, Non-U.S. Gov't

MeSH terms

  • Confidentiality
  • Cultural Competency
  • Female
  • Focus Groups
  • Health Knowledge, Attitudes, Practice
  • Health Services Accessibility*
  • Humans
  • Iraq / ethnology
  • Male
  • Middle Aged
  • Physician-Patient Relations
  • Qualitative Research
  • Referral and Consultation
  • Refugees / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Refugees / psychology*
  • Somalia / ethnology
  • Transients and Migrants / legislation & jurisprudence*
  • Transients and Migrants / psychology*
  • Translating
  • Waiting Lists