Guest post by Fred Dunwoodie Stirton, Research Associate in the School for Policy Studies, University of Bristol. His current research interests include the forced migration of people with disabilities and states’ adherence to international human rights law. He is also part of the University of Bristol’s Learning Disability Mortality Review Programme.

The struggles and stories of disabled migrants and refugees often go unnoticed and untold. As a result, the (mis)treatment they experience is not addressed. The World Health Organisation (WHO) estimates that approximately 15% of the world’s population (more than 1 billion) live with a disability. While it may be problematic to accurately estimate the exact number of disabled people among the forcibly displaced worldwide (65.3 million), if we crudely apply this percentage, we can roughly set a figure at 7.8 million. Other factors such as the direct/indirect effects of war causing new disabilities and a decreased chance of migrating due to a disability, make it more likely that the actual number is not too distant from this figure.

International Law

The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) was enacted in 2008 and was designed to give legal standing to the human rights of people with disabilities. Article 11 specifies the obligations of state parties ‘to ensure the protection and safety of persons with disabilities in situations of risk, including situations of armed conflict, humanitarian emergencies and the occurrence of natural disasters’. Although it does not specifically mention refugees and migrants with disabilities, the equality and non-discrimination obligation that underwrites the convention places requirements on states to offer comparable provisions to people with disabilities seeking refuge within their borders.

In addition to being parties to the CRPD, EU member states are subject to a number of EU Directives; notably the Asylum Procedures Directive and the Reception Conditions Directive. These Directives oblige EU members to provide additional assistance, such as specialised medical care, to meet the needs of people with disabilities seeking asylum.

Current (but not new) failings

Currently the EU system for receiving and processing migrants does not provide an adequate method for identifying those with disabilities.  With some variation among states, those identified as disabled are entitled to specialist care or accommodation. Yet, according to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) there is ‘no systematic data on the numbers of persons with disabilities among arrivals’ nor are there adequate distinctions made between types of disability in the identification process. Given the varied requirements needed to support somebody with a mobility aid, for example, compared to somebody else with an intellectual disability, such lack of data raises significant questions about adequate treatment. Put simply, without data on the needs of those in their care, states fail their legal duty to provide services that meet these needs.

In addition to inadequate identification procedures, a recent report by FRA highlights three key failures of EU member states in their care of migrants and refugees with disabilities: inadequate accommodation and support, lack of adequately trained staff and lack of access to healthcare. The FRA’s criticisms of accommodation and support for migrants and refugees with disabilities echoed similar concerns raised by the UN Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities. The Committee noted its ‘deep concern’ with ‘the precarious situation of persons with disabilities in the current migrant crisis in the European Union’. It particularly criticised the failure to provide ‘appropriate support and reasonable accommodation’ as well as adequate information in accessible formats. In this context, EU member states also fail to meet the requirements of EU Directives on Asylum Procedures and Reception Conditions.

Furthermore, persons with disabilities do not receive differentiated treatment in accordance with their needs because of insufficient professionally qualified staff to identify and support them. FRA found this to be the case amongst the myriad of government, private and non-governmental bodies designated to deal with migrants and refugees.

Finally, access to healthcare for migrants and refugees with disabilities in the EU, who have a higher chance of having healthcare issues, is often limited to emergency care. Whether in humanitarian camps or state-run facilities, there has been a history of failing people with disabilities, which has resulted in their neglect and abuse. Much more needs to be done by all those involved to support people with disabilities who are displaced due to disaster, war or repression.

Hopefully, by raising awareness of these failings we can possibly see some much needed improvements. As a first step, the identification of those with disabilities and collection of this data is imperative. While for those already in the care of states, governments need to do more to ensure they meet their legal duty to disabled migrants and refugees. This includes providing adequate support and accommodation and offering information in accessible formats. What is more, there needs to be further research undertaken on this group as little is currently known about their situation.

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