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Prolonged COVID-19 pandemic deepens hardship for over 12 million forcibly displaced people with disabilities

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Omar, a Colombian refugee with a disability, talks with a woman with a disability at the municipal market in Esmeraldas, Ecuador, April 2021 © UNHCR/Jaime Giménez

At least 12 million people with disabilities are forcibly displaced worldwide, UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, estimates, and their already precarious situation is becoming harder as the COVID-19 pandemic drags on.

"Forced displacement disproportionately affects people with disabilities. They are often at higher risk of violence, discrimination, neglect, gender-based violence, exploitation and abuse, face barriers to access basic services, and are often excluded from education and livelihood opportunities," said Gillian Triggs, UNHCR's Assistant High Commissioner for Protection.

"While many refugees faced these unacceptable, pre-existing risks of exclusion and discrimination, we fear that the prolonged COVID-19 pandemic is only deepening inequalities and hardship," she added.

While estimates say over 12 million people with disabilities have been forcibly displaced by persecution, violence and human rights violations worldwide, surveys and assessments suggest the real number may be much higher.

Challenges and risks begin at the moment of flight. In sudden onset disasters, abrupt violence, and active hostilities, people with disabilities are often left behind by family members due to the sudden nature of armed attacks; in extreme cases reported, people were abandoned while chained.

On reaching safety, services and facilities, including assistance programmes and protection, may be inaccessible. People with disabilities may face physical barriers and obstacles to reach, enter or use basic services, or key information may be delivered in formats not accessible to them.

Refugees and internally displaced and stateless people with disabilities were already less likely to access health care, education and employment opportunities, and the global crisis has further compounded this situation.

On the International Day of Persons with Disabilities today, UNHCR is urging national authorities to do more to secure the rights of forcibly displaced and stateless people with disabilities and to counter all forms of discrimination.

Governments and humanitarian actors must promote the meaningful participation of refugees, internally displaced and stateless persons with disabilities and ensure that their needs are taken into account in national disability inclusion plans as well as in COVID-19 prevention, response and recovery plans.

Donors must commit to increase funding to ensure people with disabilities have access to protection, assistance and solutions around the world.

To further its own commitments and enhance inclusivity and participation, UNHCR has developed a five-year Action Plan for Disability Inclusion across its operations worldwide and has partnered with the International Disability Alliance to involve organizations of persons with disabilities in searching for solutions in challenges that affect their lives.

More information on UNHCR's approach to people with disabilities in displacement is available here.