Marianne Schulze, Human Rights Consultant/Monitor Victim Assistance Thematic Team
Disability comes in various forms – mobility, vision, hearing, sensual – and affects people of all walks of life. Refugees are no exception: on the contrary, they represent as much a kaleidoscope of society as any other realm of life. What is more: wars, armed conflict and other causes of humanitarian crisis as well as situations of risk can often lead to an impairment, including by landmines, cluster munitions or other explosive remnants of war.
Impairments and physical and social barriers combined, result in disabilities. A “Chronically normal person” is a label that can be attributed to those persons who believe that they do not have an impairment of any sort.
Be it the consequence of landmines or other munitions, the result of a natural disaster or the effects of a long-term crisis: impairments and disabilities are frequent among refugees. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) acknowledges that persons with disabilities are frequently “forgotten and excluded in society and often experience discrimination, exploitation and violence.”
The frequent stigma that persons with disabilities sustain is often exacerbated when fleeing. The alienation that refugees endure is aggravated when a refugee has an impairment.
Small but important steps can be taken to redress the level of exclusion: making sure that refugees with disabilities are identified is key. As the World Report on Disability (WHO & World Bank) notes: “Persons with disabilities are diverse and heterogeneous, while stereotypical views of disability emphasise wheelchair users and a few other ‘classic’ groups such as blind people and deaf people.” Accordingly, in regard to Asylum Seekers with Disabilities, Crock/McCallum/Ernst note the importance of flexible registration, taking adequate account of the varying forms of impairment and corresponding variety of support needs.
Accessibility of procedures is essential. One may be tempted to immediately think of physical accessibility but that is only one of many aspects that needs to be considered. A crucial factor is termed social accessibility: being aware that attitudes are the biggest obstacle persons with disabilities have to overcome, as the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) notes. Importantly, not all impairments are immediately apparent: e.g., trauma can fundamentally affect mental health and may cause further impairments. Being hard of hearing as a result of being exposed to a bombing will impair the ability to impart and receive information. Explosives may also cause visual impairments, again, that are not immediately recognizable.
It is important to remember the shame that can be attributed to impairment: it is one of many causes for rendering persons with disabilities invisible; persons with disabilities are often hidden due to stigma.
Loss is a frequent feature of refugee-narratives. Persons with disabilities regularly lose their immediate support network, often relatives and other confidants, when they become refugees. This and other factors compound the impairment, making persons with disabilities likely to experience aggravated forms of discrimination, as the CRPD recognizes. Accordingly, human rights law calls for adequate planning in situations of humanitarian crisis (CRPD Article 11) to assist efforts so that the needs of persons with disabilities are met even in the most vulnerable of circumstances; as the “chronically normal” too often overlook and may forget those needs.
Note: The Landmine and Cluster Munition Monitor briefing paper “Landmines and Refugees: The Risks and the Responsibilities to Protect and Assist Victims,” released on World Refugee Day 2013, looks at the conditions for victims and refugees fleeing from, or into, 20 different countries contaminated by landmines and other explosive hazards, including cluster munitions; and the experiences of returnees to another five affected countries.