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Undocumented Migrants and Healthcare

Marianne Jossen

1. Just going to hospital

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  • 1 Everyone mentioned in this report has been given a pseudonym. See Chapter Three for further inform (...)

1January 2016. It is about two months since I wrote an introductory email to Julia,1 the head of a department of an NGO that caters to the healthcare needs of so-called undocumented migrants in a Swiss region. In my email, I asked whether I might be able to undertake some volunteering and research. Since meeting Julia, I have done some translation work for the NGO, and now she has told me that if I am interested I can accompany some undocumented migrants on their hospital visits.

2This is the first time Julia has asked me to perform such a task. The patient, Nicolas, needs an examination at a public hospital in the area. On the phone Julia reassures me that everything should go smoothly, as Nicolas has insurance. He will bring the contract to prove it, but he has no insurance card. All in all, she tells me, it would be good to have somebody with Nicolas who ‘can explain things in a good, broad Swiss accent’ (as Julia puts it).

3She had instructed Nicolas to meet me in front of the hospital one and a half hours before the appointment‒ he has never been to this hospital before and therefore needs to be registered first. ‘It’s better to be early, just in case…’ advises Julia. She reminds me to call her if there are any problems.

4One morning three days later I meet Nicolas in front of the hospital. He hands me all the paperwork he has brought along. I find a referral letter, an insurance contract, and some medical results that I avoid looking at. I feel like an intruder into a stranger’s privacy. We walk to the reception, where I show the papers. We are sent to another desk for registration.

5On arrival I explain that I am here to accompany this patient. I address the receptionist in one of the Swiss national languages while Nicolas uses another one. The receptionist asks me for the insurance card. I reply that Nicolas does not have one, but that he has brought along his policy documents. ‘Normally we need that card’, she says. I do not respond. Then the receptionist asks for the patient’s address. I tell her that she can use the address on the policy, but she points out that it includes only a post-box address. She insists that surely the man must be living somewhere. I agree and then reiterate that this is the only address available. I am suddenly uncertain. Would Nicolas really be risking anything by giving the hospital his address? I am not sure. Finally the receptionist says, quite sharply: ‘So, he lives nowhere’. ‘Exactly’, I respond drily.

6We continue. An emergency contact is listed on the insurance policy. Still, the employee needs a phone number. Nicolas provides one. The receptionist does not understand it, so I translate. A few sentences later, as I continue to translate Nicolas’ explanations, she interrupts me, telling me that she understands Nicolas just fine.

7Finally, she asks for an identity card. I explain that he does not have one. She tells me that she has to clarify this with her manager. I am worried about the tense atmosphere that has developed between us, so I tell her I understand and that she can call the NGO for further information.

8On her return, the receptionist says that her manager has given his approval, but she needs to know whether Nicolas is a failed asylum seeker or if he is still going through the asylum process. I say that his status has not yet been determined. She accepts this and we are free to leave.

9I accompany Nicolas over to the waiting area. A doctor arrives to call him in, at which point we say goodbye.

10Outside, I feel relieved and upset at the same time. I ask myself a number of questions: How does Nicolas feel, having to hand over his personal documents to a complete stranger, then letting that stranger take the lead in such a supposedly easy task as hospital registration? Why does he have no insurance card even though he has insurance? How did he obtain this insurance and how does he pay for it? Does he face similar difficulties when trying to register for other healthcare services? Is he eligible for state subsidies for his insurance, like low-income Swiss citizens? Why is the NGO listed as his correspondence address? Why did the receptionist react so emotionally to the missing insurance card and residential address, and why were my responses similarly emotional? I wonder about how his appointment with the doctor might be going. Then, my questions begin to broaden in scope. Do other undocumented migrants face similar situations? Might some of them not even have insurance? What happens then? If they do not know about the NGO, do they go to the emergency department?

11This book aims to answer these questions. After outlining the situation of undocumented migrants and their access to healthcare in Europe (and particularly in Switzerland) in Chapter Two, I shall explain my research methodology and theoretical perspective in Chapter Three, while also introducing the NGO and its work. In Chapters Four to Six, the reader will embark on a journey through the worlds of eight undocumented migrants who have shared their experiences of healthcare in Switzerland. Their stories have been collected at and around the NGO, and they are augmented by the words of healthcare professionals.


1 Everyone mentioned in this report has been given a pseudonym. See Chapter Three for further information.


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