COMMENT

June 20 is World Refugee Day

Millions of people flee their country in a desperate search for a better life, free of persecution and violence. Many leave their possessions and family behind and face danger, fear and uncertainty. But imagine how much harder it is for those with a disability.

This is not rare – about one in five refugees have a disability – but it is an untold story. Too often invisible and overlooked, refugees with disabilities are among the most isolated and excluded of all displaced populations.

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Services are often inaccessible and they experience stigma and discrimination, leading to exclusion from available services and a higher risk of violence and exploitation. The lack of access to medical care and assistive devices is a particular risk for persons with disabilities.

While states have legitimate interests in securing borders and exercising immigration controls, such concerns cannot trump the obligations to respect internationally guaranteed rights, especially those of the most vulnerable such as persons with disabilities.

Dangers in travelling, including accidents, violence and in some cases land mines, mean a significant number receive a disability along the way. In addition, the poor conditions in refugee camps lead to many being at risk of impairment due to poor nutrition, illness, violence and accidents.

The last five years have seen record high numbers of refugees, increasing from an average of 45 million to the current 68 million globally. Two-thirds are displaced within their own country and one-third have been forced to flee across borders. An estimated 16 million people are newly displaced each year.

Refugee camps, intended as transition points, become home for years for many people. The process of claiming asylum can be difficult for refugees with disabilities as they face hurdles in preparing and communicating the necessary information to demonstrate the credibility of their claims.

Developing regions are hosts to 85 pre cent of the world's refugees. In the latest major crisis, over 700,000 Rohingya people have fled violence in Myanmar to Bangladesh. Cbm, with MFAT funding worked with one 10-year-old girl, Hafsa who has polio. Her peaceful world was shattered when her village was torched and her parents were killed. Miraculously Hafsa and her elder brother survived. They undertook an incredible journey to Bangladesh through a treacherous jungle path over rivers and mountains, defying her impairment. Currently living in the Rohingya camp in Cox's Bazar, she now receives rehabilitative care and has a wheelchair and a dream to one day go back home.

Hafsa, 10, from Myanmar has polio and lives in the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh where she receives rehabilitative care while dreaming of a return home. Photo / cbm
Hafsa, 10, from Myanmar has polio and lives in the Rohingya camp in Bangladesh where she receives rehabilitative care while dreaming of a return home. Photo / cbm

Disability organisations, such as cbm, work in these camps providing needs assessments and equipment, advocating for equal opportunities for refugees with disabilities, and helping aid agencies and service providers to design services that are inclusive of and accessible to persons with disabilities.

Current institutions and funding mechanisms are not equipped to deal with this looming crisis. Conflict, floods and drought are predicted to increase due to climate change, which has already been identified as a significant background driver of the refugee crises in Syria and Venezuela. Potentially hundreds of millions more people will be forced to leave their homes over the course of this century.

To manage forced displacement globally, a far more comprehensive approach is needed so that developing countries and communities are not left to deal with this issue alone.

As the numbers escalate, some countries retrench behind self-protective walls, seeing migration solely through the lens of sovereignty, border security or law enforcement.

While states have legitimate interests in securing borders and exercising immigration controls, such concerns cannot trump the obligations of the state to respect internationally guaranteed rights, especially those of the most vulnerable such as persons with disabilities, and to protect those people against abuses, so they can enjoy a life of dignity and security. Protecting these rights is also intrinsically linked to human development and wellbeing.

For refugees arriving in New Zealand and other host countries, barriers to equality can come from policy, the physical environment, and in beliefs, attitudes and behaviour.

Murray Sheard. Photo / Supplied
Murray Sheard. Photo / Supplied

In addition, negative attitudes and beliefs about disability are often the most significant cause of social isolation and a barrier to fair treatment. Highlighting the capacities, positive contributions and aspirations of persons with disabilities, as well as promoting respect for diversity, can help to challenge negative stereotypes.

* Dr Murray Sheard is chief executive of cbm New Zealand and has worked in New Zealand and internationally in global development for 15 years.