Refugees and disabilities

Refugees and disabilities

Imagine having to leave your hometown to escape the war. Imagine having to travel for miles and miles only to be pushed on an overcrowded boat with no beds, no toilets, no privacy. Not even a plug to charge your phone.

If you’re lucky you’ll only have to spend about a week on this boat before you reach the shore and can stretch your legs; but if you’re not that lucky then you could also end up spending an extra four or five days at sea, hoping that some wealthier, safer country will eventually open their ports and let you dock. What if you run out of water? Or food?

Now imagine having to go through all that once more, this time as a person with a disability.

In 2011 the World Health Organisation (WHO) estimated that around 15% of the world’s population is affected by a form of disability[, and a report published by the Women Refugee Commission (WRC) found that 13.2 million people forcibly displaced in 2016 had disabilities. In spite of this shocking number, no formal system to identify refugees with additional support needs is currently in place.

The refugee camps where people are left waiting for weeks, months or even years for their host country to make a decision about their future, are not exactly designed for people with physical impairments (and in some cases not even for human beings in general, but that’s a different story) with some of them being unable to shower for weeks. This lack of accessibility does not only translate into poor access to infrastructure, but also to suitable accommodation, health care, and other basic humanitarian services; for these reasons, UNHRC in 2011 described refugees with disabilities as ‘more likely to be sidelined in every aspect of humanitarian assistance’.

Although universal measures are still to be developed, this issue has been added to the agenda of the 2018 Global Compact for Migration – the first attempt of an intergovernmental agreement organised by the UN to discuss and find solutions to the main challenges of international migration.

In Germany, the Federal Association Lebenshilfe (which literally translates as ‘life help’ and provides support to people with disabilities since 1958) is lobbying for the rights of disabled refugees in the country whilst providing them with useful information, such as how to access the healthcare system or how to apply for financial help. The German Federal Government is also working in partnership with the WHO to train refugees in Turkey to provide health support to those with additional needs, with an estimated 350 refugees having been trained as of June 2018.

Steps in the right direction, but the road ahead is still long.

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