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Nurses ‘can lead on global challenge of refugee health’

The highest-ranking nurse in the US government under Barack Obama has urged nurses across the world to help tackle migrant and refugee health challenges.
Dr Mary Wakefield

The highest-ranking nurse from the Obama administration has urged nurses around the world to help tackle migrant and refugee health challenges.

Former acting deputy secretary of the United States department of health and human services Mary Wakefield spoke at the International Council of Nurses (ICN) congress in Barcelona, Spain on Sunday.

Dr Wakefield said nurses needed to lead transformational change to strengthen the health and well-being of one of the most vulnerable populations in the world. She warned: The global challenges are so serious they cannot be overlooked.

Nurses should consider how to use their work to minimise divisions, she added.

Dr Wakefield urged nurses to build connections between refugee populations and other communities, to model person-centred and humanitarian values, and share

The highest-ranking nurse from the Obama administration has urged nurses around the world to help tackle migrant and refugee health challenges.


Mary Wakefiled told ICN congress nurses need to show leadership to help ‘one of the most vulnerable populations in the world’.

Former acting deputy secretary of the United States department of health and human services Mary Wakefield spoke at the International Council of Nurses (ICN) congress in Barcelona, Spain on Sunday.

Dr Wakefield said nurses needed to lead transformational change to strengthen the health and well-being of ‘one of the most vulnerable populations in the world’. She warned: ‘The global challenges are so serious they cannot be overlooked.’

Nurses should consider how to use their work to minimise divisions, she added. 

Dr Wakefield urged nurses to build connections between refugee populations and other communities, to model person-centred and humanitarian values, and share information with policy-makers, the media and the public. 

Universal issue

‘Nurses can lead by example; we can use our voice for people who are too often not in a position to use theirs. It is nurses that are game-changers, they are the first point of contact around the world for people seeking care. Nurses solve a myriad of health problems: nurses are leaders, problem-solvers and innovators – this is what nurses do.’

She said individuals and families most often become displaced because of wars, famine, crime and natural disasters, and their care is a universal issue.

International Rescue Committee president and former UK foreign secretary David Miliband had summed up what was at stake at a recent meeting in Canada, she said.

‘He said the biggest question for the 21st century concerns our duty to strangers. While we are more connected then ever, a great danger is that we are constrained by our divisions.’

She added that there was ‘no better test’ of how deep these divisions are than how we treat refugees. ‘At the core of our profession is a duty to strangers to provide care, show compassion. Nurses accept a duty to strangers and provide to them expertise, skill and knowledge – it is who we are as a profession.

‘Nurses have a deep and shared commitment to improving health and healthcare for everyone.’

Across borders

Dr Wakefield added that this commitment ‘crosses borders’ and is rooted in the values of the nursing profession.

She said the ICN is consulting on a draft position statement on migrants, refugees and displaced persons, which individual nurses and national nursing organisations would soon be able to use as guidance.

A few days before ICN congress, International Organisation for Migration director-general William Swing addressed international nursing leaders in Switzerland. He said: ‘The world at present is in disarray and finds itself in the middle of a perfect storm, the likes of which I have not witnessed over my life.’

ICN chief executive Frances Hughes said: ‘Nurses are the conscience of their country. The day-to-day reality that front-line nurses face is a crucial asset that must be put to use to inform good policy-making, improving access to health services and quality care.’


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