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Gender and Social Inclusion

Displaced and Disabled Persons Get Long Overdue Attention

Yesterday I was honored to accept, on behalf of the Women’s Refugee Commission, InterAction’s 2011 Disability Inclusion Award at their annual Forum in Washington, D.C. I am truly proud of the Women’s Refugee Commission’s groundbreaking work and our many accomplishments on behalf of displaced people with disabilities.

These are highly vulnerable individuals, who are rarely acknowledged. The World Health Organization estimates that between 7 and 10 percent of the world’s population lives with disabilities. Based on this, we can calculate that between 2.8 and 4 million of the world’s 40+ million displaced people are disabled. In fact, the percentage of people living with disabilities may be even higher among those who have fled civil conflict, war or natural disaster.

Sadly, people with disabilities remain among the most hidden, neglected and socially excluded of any population in the world today. They are often not counted in refugee registration drives or identified in data collection. Because of physical and social barriers, they are unable to access mainstream assistance programs offered to other refugees. Their potential as contributors to society is seldom recognized, and they are often seen as a problem for their families and communities, rather than a resource. What’s more, the loss of traditional caregivers—extended families, neighbors—during displacement can leave them more at risk.

In 2008, we released the first-ever major report to address the critical needs of refugees and people displaced within their own countries who suffer from physical, sensory or mental disabilities. The report Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations is based on fact-finding missions in Ecuador, Jordan, Nepal, Thailand and Yemen, where we interviewed staff from United Nations agencies and local organizations in refugee settings and held focus group discussions with displaced people. We looked at the situation of Colombian, Somali, Iraqi, Burmese, Bhutanese and Sudanese populations in refugee camps and urban environments—in both emergency and protracted situations—with a particular focus on women, children and adolescents.

In every country, we identified problems with the physical layout of spaces and infrastructure that impeded access to vital services at schools, health centers, bathing facilities and latrines. In one case, for example, a clinic was located at the top of a hill, completely inaccessible to a person in a wheelchair or with limited mobility. Difficulties with physical access affected all aspects of disabled refugees’ daily lives—especially those with physical and visual impairments—and increased their levels of isolation. We also found that refuges with disabilities did not receive additional or special food rations; they were clearly not a priority for those distributing food. Also, they couldn’t access the specialized health care they needed the most, including medical specialists, therapy, medicines, treatments and psychosocial support and counseling.

People with disabilities told us that they face huge social, cultural and legal barriers in finding employment, not only because of their disabilities, but also because of their status as refugees and outsiders. Many reported that they were discriminated against, stigmatized, harassed or excluded. And there are few, if any, opportunities for them to participate in community leadership and decision-making.

After hearing the stories and experiences of countless displaced and disabled people, we created a resource kit to provide practical guidance for UN and humanitarian agency staff in the field. The kit includes practical advice on how to make refugee camps more accessible to people with disabilities and how to promote and ensure that they have full and equal access to the services that other refugees receive.

We have worked closely with humanitarian workers in a variety of countries to demonstrate how to use the resource kit to enhance the participation and inclusion of persons with disabilities.

In Haiti, after the earthquake, we conducted a series of workshops based on our report and resource kit, tailored to address the needs of people with disabilities in the wake of a natural disaster. More than 100 people from international and local organizations, UN agencies and the Haitian government participated in the trainings. Haitians with disabilities also participated in a panel discussion during the workshops about the challenges they faced in post-earthquake Haiti—ranging from discrimination and social stigma to difficulties accessing services and gaining employment.

Last year, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) adopted and issued a policy that guides member countries when dealing with refugees with disabilities. The Women’s Refugee Commission played a key role in developing this policy; we built a collation of organizations to advocate for specific guidance that would help countries identify and serve refugees with disabilities. Many of the coalition’s recommendations were included in the final version of the policy, which will now serve as “soft law” for UNHCR and all the countries adhering to it.

It’s encouraging to note the real progress we have made in helping get displaced persons with disabilities on the humanitarian agenda, but we still have much work to do to make sure this guidance is put into practice. We need to ensure the needs and rights of this extremely vulnerable population are met. As Chris Stubbs of the Mentally Handicapped Children and Families Education Project in Sri Lanka has noted, “The most important thing in an emergency is DIGNITY. We have to treat persons with disabilities with dignity and respect their right to live in their own community with dignity.”

Gender and Social Inclusion