Pregnant asylum-seekers ‘at risk’ of developing mental and physical health problems


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Pregnant asylum seekers in Britain are at “serious risk” of developing mental and physical health problems as a result of systemic failings, a report claims.

‘When Maternity Doesn’t Matter: Dispersing Pregnancy Women Seeking Asylum’ is a collaborative investigation by Maternity Action and the Refugee Council claiming the UK Border Agency [UKBA]is “failing” vulnerable women.

The report focuses on the relocation of pregnant women awaiting a decision on their application to the UK Borders Agency, who were moved between accommodation including hostels and detention centres, across the country. This is claimed to severely jeopardise the quality and continuity of care, endangering the health of mother and child and leaving women suicidal.

Cathy Warwick, General Secretary of the Royal College of Midwives, who wrote the foreword to the report, says the findings are “shocking”: “All of these vulnerable women have social problems and money of them also have medical problems, such as HIV or other serious infections, complicating their pregnancy”. Midwives and health workers, she adds, are at a loss to help: “The system is working against [them] failing to heed their advice or recognise their knowledge and expertise”.

The study published today consulted 20 asylum seekers, as well as health workers. One had HIV, two were sickle cell carriers, one had experienced Female Genital Mutilation [FGM], one had Hepatitis B, one had a history of ectopic pregnancy and one had had her fibroid removed which would complicate delivery.

13 were already in their final trimester of pregnancy when they were moved, eight were in their last month, and one was rehoused to the opposite side of the country the day before she gave birth. More than half described experiencing mental health problems during their pregnancy on top of physical problems, and three women attempted suicide as a result.

Giving evidence, a woman called Irene said she escaped Kenya after being raped, and so to avoid FGM and a forced marriage, and after three years living in London was dispersed to a hostel in the north of England, while pregnant. At the hostel, she said, she was told she couldn’t register for a GP or midwife but was seen by an on-site nurse who gave a her a TB jab and prescribed her anti-depressants, both dangerous for pregnant women. Following an emergency caesarean she claimed she was given no money for two weeks and had to climb stairs carrying her baby despite medical advice to the contrary.

A midwife reporting on a separate patient who was facing dispersal while 28 weeks pregnant said: “She was distraught. Her mental health was suffering.”

While the UKBA does not hold records on the number of asylum seekers who are pregnant, a Freedom of Information request shows 615 applied for maternity grants in the first six months of 2011, giving some indication of the number of pregnant women in the system.

Cathy Warwick concluded: “Our society is failing these women and their babies. This is not acceptable particularly when the solutions are so obvious”.

A UK Border Agency spokesperson said: ""We consider every case individually and, wherever possible, women in the latter stages of pregnancy will not be moved to a different area. Last year we introduced a revised pregnancy dispersal policy which includes a commitment to not move any pregnant woman during the four weeks before or after her due date.”