Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations

By Reilly, Rachael | Forced Migration Review, July 2010 | Go to article overview

Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations


Reilly, Rachael, Forced Migration Review


In 2007 the Women's Refugee Commission launched a major research project to assess the situation for those living with disabilities among displaced and conflict-affected populations.

People living with disabilities may be left behind during flight, or may not survive the journey; they are often not identified or counted in registration or data collection exercises; they are excluded from or unable to access mainstream assistance programmes and forgotten when specialised services are set up. They are often the most exposed to protection risks, including physical and sexual violence, exploitation, harassment and discrimination. The loss of family members or caregivers during displacement can leave persons with disabilities more isolated and vulnerable than they were in their home communities. And their potential to contribute and participate is seldom recognised. Refugees and displaced persons living with disabilities are amongst the most hidden, excluded and neglected of all displaced persons.

Some refugees and displaced persons may have lived their whole fives with a disability. Others may have become disabled during the conflict or natural disaster which led to their flight. The disruption of health and social services during conflicts or after a natural disaster can deprive the local population, especially children, of essential preventative and curative medical services, resulting in permanent impairments which could otherwise have been prevented.

The Women's Refugee Commission was particularly concerned that displaced women, children and older persons face multiple discrimination on the basis of their gender, age and social status, as well as their disability. Women with disabilities are often exposed to sexual violence, domestic abuse and physical assault. Children with disabilities frequently suffer physical and sexual abuse, exploitation and neglect. They are excluded from education and not provided with the support to help them develop to their full capacity. In the Dadaab refugee camp in Kenya, Somali children with disabilities were sometimes tied up and had stones thrown at them, or suffered verbal abuse from other people in the community.

Mothers are often blamed for their children's disabilities and may suffer physical or sexual abuse from their husbands or other family members, and be harassed, stigmatised and abandoned as a result. Older persons with disabilities may be abandoned or neglected by family members who can no longer care for them; they may face extreme isolation and vulnerability and may be unable to access the basic health care, food and shelter they need to survive.

The Women's Refugee Commission mapped existing services for displaced persons with disabilities in five countries, identifying gaps and examples of good practice and making concrete recommendations on how to improve services, protection and participation for this neglected population. Field studies were carried out by local NGO service-providers and disabled persons organisations (DPOs) in Bhutanese refugee camps in Nepal, Burmese refugee camps in Thailand and Somali refugee camps in Yemen, and among urban Iraqi refugees in Jordan and urban Colombian refugees in Ecuador. Additional information came from Dadaab refugee camp for Somali refugees in Kenya and IDP camps in Sudan and Sri Lanka.

Key findings

Data collection:

In all the countries surveyed there was a lack of reliable and consistent data on the number and profile of displaced persons with disabilities. This problem was particularly acute in urban areas, where there was insufficient data on the number of refugees in general and little or no information on the number of refugees with disabilities. A lack of consistency in terminology and methodologies for data collection, cultural differences in definitions and concepts of disability, and lack of training or disability awareness amongst data collection staff all affected the accuracy of data. …

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Disabilities among Refugees and Conflict-Affected Populations
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