In Malaysia, refugees and asylum-seekers are a vulnerable group that often face circumstances in which their health and wellbeing can be compromised. This qualitative study sought to examine the key health concerns and barriers to healthcare access among refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia through the lens of healthcare professionals, program staff and experts on refugee and migrant health.
We conducted 20 semi-structured in-depth interviews with experts, healthcare professionals, program managers or executives from UN agencies, public healthcare facilities, civil society organizations, and academic institutions in Malaysia. Interviews were transcribed and analyzed both deductively and inductively using thematic analysis.
Participant narratives highlight that the health needs of refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia are complex. As reported, access to healthcare is underpinned by numerous social, cultural and economic determinants compounded by a legal environment that lacks inclusivity of refugees and asylum-seekers. Apart from the health risks associated with the migration process, limited access to comprehensive healthcare post-arrival remain a problem for refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia. Key barriers to healthcare access are linked to poor health literacy and the lack of awareness on one's right to healthcare; language and cultural differences; protection issues resulting from a lack of legal status; and an inability to afford healthcare due to inadequate livelihoods. Overall, poor access to healthcare is perceived to have detrimental consequences on the health status of refugees, asylum-seekers and its host population, and may incur greater costs to the health system in the long run.
Comprehensive efforts in practice and research that tackle the social, cultural and economic determinants of health, and more inclusive health policies are crucial in strengthening healthcare access among refugees and asylum-seekers in Malaysia. Practical recommendations include improving the health literacy of refugees and asylum-seekers for better navigation of the health system; bridging language and cultural gaps through translation support and inter-cultural orientation; implementing policies grounded in the right to healthcare for all regardless of legal status and in the interest of public health; and establishing a larger evidence base to drive policy development and implementation for refugee health within the Malaysian context.