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Keywords:

  • health visiting;
  • refugees;
  • primary care nursing;
  • women;
  • children;
  • needs

Aim.  This paper reports on the perceptions of experienced health visitors working with refugee families in Inner London.

Background.  Women who are refugees and asylum seekers in the United Kingdom are more likely to experience depression than either non-refugee women or male asylum seekers. Health visitors provide a universal public health service to all women on the birth of a child, or with children aged under five, and as such are well placed to identify emotional and mental health problems of women who are refugees. Despite successive waves of refugees to the United Kingdom in the 20th century, there are no empirical studies of health visiting practice with this vulnerable group. There is also no body of evidence to inform the practice of health visitors new to working with asylum seekers and refugees.

Methods.  An exploratory study was undertaken in Inner London in 2001. Semi-structured interviews were conducted with a purposive sample of 13 health visitors experienced in working with women and families who are refugees.

Findings.  A range of structural challenges was identified that mediated against the development of a health-promoting relationship between health visitors and refugee women. With refugee families, who were living in temporary accommodation, health visitors were prioritizing basic needs that had to be addressed: in addition, they prioritized the needs of children before those of women. Health visitors were aware of the emotional needs of women and had strategies for addressing these with women in more settled circumstances. Health visitors considered themselves ill-prepared to deal with the complexities of working with women in these situations.

Conclusions.  This study identifies issues for further exploration, not least from the perspective of refugee women receiving health visiting services. Health visitors in countries receiving refugee women are framing their work with these women in ways that reflect Maslow's theory of a hierarchy of needs. This study suggests ways that public health nursing practice could be improved, and identifies issues for further study.