Invisible: Migrants and Refugees with disabilities

Migration and displacement are core issues for humanitarian, human rights and development policy makers and practitioners. This voluntary or involuntary movement of people across internal or international borders in search of a better life is a mainstay in international relations. According to the UNHCR, there are currently 79.5 million forcibly displaced people in 2021 and according to an IOM report in 2020, there will be around 281 million international migrants in the world in 2020, which is 3.6% of the global population. This fast-paced increase in the movement including internal movement and climate related movement does not show any signs of stopping. Migration is a political issue that raises questions of identity, citizenship, integration and is used by some to play upon fear of the unknown, of the stranger, of the ‘other’. The data surrounding migration and displacement patterns is overwhelming at times, statistics flow through news reports with barely a blink of an eye. However, with regards to disability, there is limited information relating to the situation and numbers or migrants and refugees with disabilities and what protections are available for them

Migrant workers move internally or externally in search of better economic opportunities and better access to education and health systems. Studies and research suggest that migrant workers with lower levels of skills or educational attainment are exposed to a greater risk of disability. This is due to these workers usually finding work in dangerous manual labour which has higher rates for accidents. Usually, these workers cannot access quality health services or disability benefits compared to the host population. In a humanitarian context, refugees with disabilities are more likely to be excluded from assistance due to physical, environmental and societal barriers against information, services and human rights protection according to the UNHCR. Forced displacement increases the vulnerability of people with disabilities resulting in possible discrimination and exclusion from education, health and livelihoods and exploitation.

The concept of intersectionality can help to understand the challenges and constraints of these individuals’ experiences. This is summarised well by Trotter who observed that ‘being a migrant affects the experience of being disabled but being disabled also alters the experience of migration’.[1] The European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA) published research has shown that when arriving in Europe, migrants are not supported appropriately or provided adequate care. According to the UN, while the International Normative Framework has broadly recognised the importance of addressing the needs of people with disabilities, it overlooks the subgroups within the disabled people in the context of migration, including migrant workers with disabilities and refugees with disabilities.[2] Migration policies are generally a ‘one size fits all’ approach which neglects the specific needs of individuals within this broad group.

In Europe, there are two available legal instruments that should, in theory, offer protections to asylum seekers with disabilities. The EU  Reception Conditions Directive includes a requirement for states to develop a vulnerability assessment tool for asylum seekers that are listed as ‘vulnerable’, including people with disabilities. It is required 30 days after a protection claim has been lodged. However, the implementation of this requirement has been slow. In Ireland, there was a 2 and a half year delay in its implementation and in January 2021, the Irish Government announced it was only piloting the tool in one of its reception centres. The use of this tool during the initial reception stage has been criticised, however. Newly arrived asylum seekers worry that disclosing their disability may negatively impact their application and in some cases, may have experienced traumatic events that may have been the cause of their disability, including being survivors of trafficking or torture. Critics urge that the tool be available after the initial period for this reason.

The second legal framework available is the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD). The CRPD applies to situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies (Article 11) and so reinforces the international protection of asylum seekers with disabilities. The CRPD is monitored by the Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities which is a useful monitoring mechanism for countries who sign and ratify the UN Convention. States are required to submit regular reports to the Committee on how the rights in the Convention are implemented. The committee examines the reports and gives recommendations to states.

However, even with these legal instruments in place, migrants, refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities are often marginalised and made invisible in society. Accurate reliable data is crucial in order to respond to the needs of this group and currently there is a critical gap of this type of data. The 2030 Development Agenda acknowledges the importance of empowering people in vulnerable situations, particularly goal 8 and 10 which refer to protecting labour rights and safe working environments for migrant workers and reducing inequalities for people with disabilities. As global attention to mainstreaming, inclusion and intersectionality continues, it is imperative that clear statistics and emphasis on the nexus between disability and migration becomes a focus to improve disability friendly migration policies.

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