Understanding the health and housing experiences of refugees and other migrant populations experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing: a systematic review using GRADE-CERQual

CMAJ Open. 2021 Jun 18;9(2):E681-E692. doi: 10.9778/cmajo.20200109. Print 2021 Apr-Jun.


Background: A growing number of migrants experience precarious housing situations worldwide, but little is known about their health and housing experiences. The objective of this study was to understand the enablers and barriers of accessing fundamental health and social services for migrants in precarious housing situations.

Methods: We conducted a systematic review of qualitative studies. We searched the databases of MEDLINE, PsycINFO, CINAHL, Scopus, Web of Science, Social Sciences, Canadian Business & Current Affairs and Sociological Abstracts for articles published between Jan. 1, 2007, and Feb. 9, 2020. We selected studies and extracted data in duplicate, and used a framework synthesis approach, the Bierman model for migration, to guide our analysis of the experiences of migrant populations experiencing homelessness or vulnerable housing in high-income countries. We critically appraised the quality of included studies using the Critical Appraisal Skills Programme checklist and assessed confidence in key findings using the Grading of Recommendations Assessment, Development and Evaluation Confidence in the Evidence from Reviews of Qualitative Research (GRADE-CERQual) approach.

Results: We identified 1039 articles, and 18 met our inclusion criteria. The studies focused on migrants from Asia and Africa who resettled in Canada, Australia, the United States, the United Kingdom and other European countries. Poor access to housing services was related to unsafe housing, facing a family separation, insufficient income assistance, immigration status, limited employment opportunities and lack of language skills. Enablers to accessing appropriate housing services included finding an advocate and adopting survival and coping strategies.

Interpretation: Migrants experiencing homelessness and vulnerable housing often struggle to access health and social services; migrants may have limited proficiency with the local language, limited access to safe housing and income support, and ongoing family insecurities. Public health leaders could develop outreach programs that address access and discrimination barriers.

Prospero registration: CRD42018071568.

Publication types

  • Systematic Review

MeSH terms

  • Health Services Accessibility / standards
  • Housing / standards*
  • Humans
  • Ill-Housed Persons*
  • Needs Assessment
  • Refugees / statistics & numerical data*
  • Social Welfare