Open Access Research article

Access to healthcare and alternative health-seeking strategies among undocumented migrants in Denmark

Dan Biswas*, Maria Kristiansen, Allan Krasnik and Marie Norredam

Author Affiliations

Danish Research Centre for Migration, Ethnicity and Health, Department of Public Health, University of Copenhagen, Øster Farimagsgade 5A, DK-1014 Copenhagen, Denmark

For all author emails, please log on.

BMC Public Health 2011, 11:560  doi:10.1186/1471-2458-11-560

Published: 13 July 2011



As in many European countries, undocumented migrants in Denmark have restricted access to healthcare. The aim of this study is to describe and analyse undocumented migrants' experiences of access to healthcare, use of alternative health-seeking strategies; and ER nurses' experiences in encounters with undocumented migrants.


Qualitative design using semi-structured interviews and observations. The participants included ten undocumented South Asian migrants and eight ER nurses.


Undocumented migrants reported difficulties accessing healthcare. The barriers to healthcare were: limited medical rights, arbitrariness in healthcare professionals' attitudes, fear of being reported to the police, poor language skills, lack of network with Danish citizens, lack of knowledge about the healthcare system and lack of knowledge about informal networks of healthcare professionals. These barriers induced alternative health-seeking strategies, such as self-medication, contacting doctors in home countries and borrowing health insurance cards from Danish citizens. ER nurses expressed willingness to treat all patients regardless of their migratory status, but also reported challenges in the encounters with undocumented migrants. The challenges for ER nurses were: language barriers, issues of false identification, insecurities about the correct standard procedures and not always being able to provide appropriate care.


Undocumented migrants face formal and informal barriers to the Danish healthcare system, which lead to alternative health-seeking strategies that may have adverse effects on their health. This study shows the need for policies and guidelines, which in accordance with international human rights law, ensure access to healthcare for undocumented migrants and give clarity to healthcare professionals.