No legal instruments exist at the international level, as such, to protect the rights of disabled refugees, but the UN issued guidelines in 1996 call for countries to equalize disabled people's opportunities for health, education, work and social participation. Provisions of the 1951 UN Refugee Convention relating to the status of Refugees, and its 1967 protocol, apply to disabled refugees, as they do to all refugees. However, at the organizational level there is currently no systematic way of collecting information or centralizing it. However, progress is being made. UNHCR-supported action on behalf of the disabled is positive, and in some cases, outstanding. WHO has established a disability and rehabilitation unit. And a number of non-governmental agencies are focusing their attention on the special needs of disabled individuals. But much more remains to be done.
Factors that can cause debilitating impairments include individual genetic makeup, cultural or religious rites and practices, conflict-generated or accidental injuries, especially from land mines, malnutrition and both infectious and non-infectious diseases, the refugee experience itself, emotional trauma associated with conflict and displacement, and the aging process. For example, in the Occupied Palestinian Territories, the Al-Aqsa Intifada has increased the number of disabled people in the region. While no statistics exist on the permanently disabled, more than 30,000 people have been injured since September 2000. In sub-Saharan Africa, sleeping sickness threatens 55 million people in 36 countries. A parasitic disease transmitted by the tsetse fly, sleeping sickness is fatal without medical treatment. Inadequate prenatal care leads to an increased incidence of birth trauma. Emotional and psychological wounds inflicted on people can plague them with vivid nightmares, violent memories, survivor guilt, or desires of revenge that can impair functioning.
Disabled displaced people face challenges in finding safety, in activities of daily life, in discrimination on several fronts including education, access to services and rehabilitation; and are in some cases more vulnerable to physical attack. Gender and age can compound discrimination. If there are opportunities for education, it is usually disabled boys who receive them, and then it is usually through church or charity-run schools. Low levels of education or training and public attitudes that disabled people should be hidden away and taken care of by charities translates to low levels of employment and high levels of poverty. In the resettlement process, disabled refugees are frequently treated unequally with their non-disabled counterparts. Immigration policies in most countries discriminate against disabled refugees. In addition, when one family member is denied permanent resident status on medical grounds, the entire family is denied. In extreme cases, families leave disabled children behind so the rest of the family may be resettled. Mentally ill persons can be difficult to resettle because host countries may lack facilities to assist them.
Through sheer determination and creativity, disabled refugees survive and often thrive. One Cambodian survivor, having lost both legs in a landmine accident, continued providing for his family. He tends his garden, moving from house to garden and around the field by pulling himself on a small wooden board. He has slept in the field when he would lose too much time transporting himself. When legless refugees burned their knees moving across the hot sands of Dadaab camp, they asked UNHCR to provide something to cover their stumps to keep them self-sufficient.
Some disabled individuals must rely on family and community members for assistance with certain tasks that are difficult to complete on their own. A sight-impaired mother on return to Herat, Afghanistan, used her knowledge base to re-establish their lives while also relying on her child to ensure safe passage. Programs for the education and training of refugees with disabilities have been developed, but the coverage is not systematic and depends on the organizations implementing them and the availability of resources.
Refugees International recommends that UN, non-governmental agencies, and other interested parties:
- Press for the development of legal instruments
that protect the rights of disabled individuals, including refugees, IDPS,
and the stateless.
- Ensure equal access to protection, shelter,
and food by creating by actively identifying those who might otherwise
be under-served, and screening themfor needed medical treatment or referral.
- Provide access to medical care and medical
education during humanitarian emergencies to prevent disabilities from
arising and worsening.
- Press funders to evaluate community
service programs of agencies serving refugee populations.
- Strengthen UNHCR capacity to address the needs of disabled refugees in a systematic manner.