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01.12.2015 | Research article | Ausgabe 1/2015 Open Access

BMC Public Health 1/2015

Subjective health of undocumented migrants in Germany – a mixed methods approach

BMC Public Health > Ausgabe 1/2015
Anna Kuehne, Susann Huschke, Monika Bullinger
Wichtige Hinweise
Anna Kuehne and Susann Huschke contributed equally to this work.

Competing interests

None of the authors declares any competing interests.

Authors’ contributions

AK and SH contributed equally to the study. AK carried out the quantitative research including design, realization, analysis and interpretation and drafted the manuscript. SH carried out the ethnographic research including design, realization, analysis and interpretation and added the qualitative part to the manuscript. MB supervised the quantitative study, participated in its design and revised the manuscript critically. All authors read and approved the final manuscript.

Authors’ information

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Health of migrants is known to be above-average in the beginning of the migration trajectory. At the same time reports from non-government organisations (NGOs) suggest that undocumented migrants in Germany tend to present late and in poor health at healthcare facilities. In this paper, we explore the health status of undocumented migrants with a mixed method approach including complementary qualitative and quantitative datasets.


Undocumented migrants attending a NGO based in Hamburg, Germany, were asked to fill in the SF-12v2, a standardized questionnaire measuring health-related quality of life (HRQOL). The SF-12v2 was analyzed in comparison to the U.S. American norm sample and a representative German sample. Differences in mean scores for HRQOL were evaluated with a t-test and with a generalized linear model analyzing the impact of living without legal status on HRQOL. The quantitative research was complemented by a qualitative ethnographic study on undocumented migration and health in Berlin, Germany. The study included semi-structured interviews, informal conversations and participant observation with Latin American migrants over the course of three years. The study focused on subjective experiences of illness and health and the impact of illegality on migrants’ health and access to health care.


HRQOL was significantly worse in the sample of undocumented migrants (n = 96) as compared to the U.S. American sample (p < 0.005). Living without legal status displayed a significant negative effect on subjective mental and physical health (p ≤ 0.003) in the generalized linear model when adjusted for age and gender compared to the representative German population sample. The ethnographic study, which included 35 migrants, identified socio-economic conditions, the subjective experiences of criminalization, and late presentation at healthcare-facilities as the three main factors impacting on health from migrant perspective.


The present research suggests a high morbidity and mortality in this comparatively young population. The ethnographic research confirms negative impacts on health of social determinants in general and stressassociated with living without legal status in particular, both are further aggravated by exclusion from health care services. In addition to the provision of health care it appears to be important to structurally tackle the underlying social conditions which affect undocumented migrants’ health.


Living without legal status has a negative impact on health and well-being. Limited access to care may further exacerbate physical and mental illness. Possibilities to claim basic rights and protection as well as access to care without legal status appear to be important measures to improve health and well-being.
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