Providing health care in politically charged contexts: a qualitative study about experiences during a public collective hunger strike of asylum seekers in Germany

Int J Qual Stud Health Well-being. 2022 Dec;17(1):2018770. doi: 10.1080/17482631.2021.2018770.


Purpose: Role expectations of physicians providing health care for hunger strikers have been discussed in the context of prisons and detention centres. Ethical guidance for physicians in these situations is codified in the Declaration of Malta. In the last years, new forms of collective, public hunger strikes of asylum seekers have occurred. We have aimed at reconstructing the experiences of health-care personnel involved in one of such cases.

Methods: Semi-structured interviews with nine participants (physicians and paramedics) that had been involved in a public collective hunger strike of asylum seekers in Germany were conducted.

Results: We identified three health-care provider groups: voluntary physicians, emergency service providers and medical consultants for the authorities. Role conflicts arising from multiple loyalty situations with obligations towards different stakeholders (e.g., strikers, employers, authorities) were perceived as the greatest challenge especially for voluntary doctor and emergency service provider participants. Such conflicts culminated in feeling instrumentalized for political goals.

Conclusion: The results illustrate that professional challenges in the health care during a public collective hunger strike differ in various aspects from those described in the literature on custodial settings. We recommend expanding and adapting the medico-ethical guidance.

Keywords: Physician role; asylum seekers; decision-making; doctor-patient relationship; dual loyalty; hunger strike; role conflict.

MeSH terms

  • Delivery of Health Care
  • Fasting*
  • Germany
  • Humans
  • Qualitative Research
  • Refugees*

Grants and funding

The authors received funding by the Friedrich-Baur-Stiftung (grant number 10/16). The funding source had no influence on study design, the collection, analysis and interpretation of data, the writing of the article or the decision to submit it for publication.