25th Mar 2023

Prisoners, homeless, migrants, 'overlooked' in EU vaccine race

  • Only a third of EU countries consider prisoners as a priority group - despite an increased risk of infection due to crowded living conditions (Photo: Jumilla)

More than 300 million doses of Covid-19 vaccines have been administrated in the EU, but vulnerable groups, such as prisoners, homeless people and migrants, are at risk to be left behind, the EU's Fundamental Rights Agency (FRA) has warned.

In a report, published on Wednesday (16 June), the report revealed the difficulties people in vulnerable situations face accessing vaccines - from language barriers to limitations tied to residence or legal status.

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Recommendations by international and EU health authorities highlighted the importance of including in vaccination plans communities unable to retain physical distance, and vulnerable socioeconomic groups alongside the elderly, people with underlying health conditions and key workers.

However, member states have not always followed this guidance, particularly during the first phase of the vaccination rollout, the report found.

In all EU countries, bar Slovakia, Poland and Estonia, people with disabilities have been included among priority groups - albeit to different extents.

By contrast, the report shows that no member state included Roma and Travellers, as persons belonging to ethnic or national minorities, in the priority groups. The Slovak national vaccination plan initially included a provision, that was removed shortly after.

Meanwhile, only one-third of EU countries consider prisoners as a priority group - despite an obvious increased risk of infection due to crowded indoor living conditions.

These comprise Austria, Croatia, Cyprus, Germany, Greece, Italy, Latvia, Portugal and Romania. Spain and Luxembourg, for example, have recommended the vaccination of people deprived of their liberty, without specifying them as priority groups.

Similarly, only seven member states included homeless people in the priority groups of their national vaccination strategies.

Austria, Germany and Hungary ranked homeless people in shelters as a high-priority group from the first versions of their national vaccination strategies, while Portugal and Romania considered homeless people (not limited to people in shelters) a priority group in amendments to their plans.

By contrast, Slovakia and Sweden removed homeless people as a priority group in amendments to their vaccination strategies.

Similar decisions were taken regarding undocumented people, refugees and asylum-seekers.

Migrants 'disproportionately represented'

Only Austria, Croatia, Cyprus and Germany included persons without legal residence or with insecure status in their priority groups.

Romania added migrants living in centres and all other types of migrants as a priority group, after updating its vaccination strategy in January.

Greece, for its part, has come under fire for not prioritising vaccination of migrants living in 'hotspots' on the Greek islands. The rollout of vaccines in migrant camps only started early in June.

Earlier this month, the European Centre for Diseases Prevention and Control (ECDC) said that some migrant groups are "disproportionately represented" in Covid-19 cases, hospitalisations, and deaths.

The ECDC also warned about the low vaccination rates among migrants due to hesitancy, misinformation or problems accessing health care.

Prisoners, homeless people, asylum seekers and irregular migrants, who are often not covered by national health schemes, face more challenges accessing vaccines. But some member states have waived formal requirements to ensure access.

Currently, vaccinations are available for everyone regardless of health insurance status in Bulgaria, Croatia, Estonia, France, Germany, Greece, Luxembourg and Portugal.

Meanwhile, the FRA report shows that EU countries rarely provide accessible information in different languages for those who do not speak the national languages, such as migrants.

It adds that favoritism and queue-jumping has also undermined public trust in the vaccination procedures.

The agency has called on EU countries to ensure fair and equal access to vaccines, pointing out that vaccination will protect the social rights of those most in need.

"Unprecedented vaccination mobilisation efforts risk overlooking vulnerable groups," said FRA director Michael O'Flaherty.

"EU countries need to take care no one is left behind by guaranteeing equitable access to vaccines throughout all stages of national campaigns," he added.

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