BACKGROUND: Although the focus of health care for people seeking asylum in Western European countries is usually on communicable diseases, there is little data about the general health care need of this population. In this study, we investigated the actual burden of disease among asylum seekers. METHODS: Data were collected from a Swiss Health Maintenance Organisation (HMO; a type of managed care organization in which physicians act as gate keepers) that was set up specifically to provide health care for asylum seekers. The data included socio-demographic characteristics, international classification of diseases (ICD-10) diagnoses and number of clinic visits. Descriptive statistics were used to assess the types of health problems and the number of clinic visits. Logistic regression analysis was used to determine whether age, gender or country or region of origin was predictive in terms of incidence of disease as diagnosed by using ICD classifications. RESULTS: The total number of asylum seekers (mean age 22 years; 38% women) enrolled in the HMO from 2000 through 2003 was 979. Half of this group came from the former country of Yugoslavia. The remainder came primarily from sub-Saharan Africa, Turkey, Iraq and Sri Lanka. The most common health problems encountered in the population included musculoskeletal diseases, respiratory diseases, depression and post-traumatic stress disorder. The prevalence of all disease clusters was significantly associated with age. One-fifth of the population did not request health care at all during the time they were enrolled in the HMO. It is not known whether those who did not visit the medical clinic did not require health care or just chose not to request clinic services. CONCLUSIONS: The most frequent health problems encountered in the study population were chronic medical conditions, not communicable acute diseases. Although health care services provided to asylum seekers usually focus on episodic acute care, what this group actually needs is continuity of care.