Disabled Refugees: Vulnerable, With a More Limited Safety Net

In a world at unrest, people are constantly on the move across international borders. Fleeing abuse, seeking a chance at a different life, avoiding very real and present dangers. Refugees seek to find literal high ground when they are flooded out or droughts make their homelands uninhabitable, they run from civil war and violence, they seek to avoid retributions for helping the wrong people or doing the wrong thing. Globally, there is an acknowledgement that a framework to support refugees must be in place, with a system for processing people who apply for asylum and may not have sponsors, assets, and the other things nations expect of new citizens and visitors, because refugees are sometimes escaping with little more than the clothes on their backs.

Refugees are more likely to have health problems, including serious ones. Lives on the run that may have included time in cramped, unsanitary environments are a factor. So are the risks associated with poverty or limited social status, common issues for refugees. Disability is more common among refugees than the general population, whether people are amputees as a result of land mines, or have congenital disorders related to coming from heavily polluted areas with limited reproductive health services.

Which makes disabled refugees a particular global concern, because they have needs above and beyond those experienced by other people seeking asylum. Making it all the more unfortunate that people with disabilities seeking asylum and assistance often end up falling through the cracks of the system, rather than getting the help they need. Instead of being identified and targeted as people who may need extra followup and assistance to get established in a new country, they are ignored and left to fend for themselves, leaving them in an extremely vulnerable position.

Internationally, there are no broad mandates to look out for the welfare of disabled refugees. Benefits are provided on an individual basis with a patchwork framework rife for abuses; both in the sense that people may not get the help they need, and in the sense that people may exploit the existing system to get benefits they don’t need or deserve. There’s a push in some nations towards naturalisation for refugees which forces people off benefits if they remain in the country too long, unless they want to naturalise and are willing to go through the process to receive assistance again.

Like other refugees, people with disabilities can face an uphill battle when it comes to getting established. They may experience racial discrimination in searches for housing and employment, which can be confounded by language barriers. People fleeing oppressive regimes, for example, may not have ample time for a study of a new language, and are forced into low-paying jobs when they arrive and start seeking work. Many of these positions are under the table, coming without employment protections like minimum wage, safe working conditions, and, of course, an opportunity to protest civil rights violations.

Employers know they can threaten refugees who ask for better working conditions. They have many more potentials interested in the same positions, and aren’t afraid to hold that over the heads of their staff. Refugees may also not be aware of the rights and protections due them under the law, or may be misled into believing these do not apply. For people with disabilities, this can be compounded by lack of access to workplace accommodations, and an inability to request them or fight for them. People may not know where to go to find resources to help, and are too afraid of losing their jobs to speak up or report abusive employers.

Housing discrimination is also an issue for refugees in general and disabled refugees in particular. The same racist attitudes may limit access to housing, and these problems are extended for people who need accessible living spaces. Faced with a nice respectable citizen versus a disabled refugee using a wheelchair, the landlord makes a choice, and the same choice is made over and over again by thousands of landlords. Each time, they can come up with good reasons for the decision, but what it boils down to is a lack of desire for ‘their kind’ in housing units.

Lack of stable employment and housing can jeopardise the health of disabled refugees. They may not be able to access regular medications and followup treatment, for example, or may use accessibility devices that are in urgent need of updating and adjustment that could develop problems without frequent medical appointments. A young child wearing braces, for instance, needs regular fitting and adjustment sessions to make sure they continue to work, and provide the right level of support. Those services require safety and stability, which may not be accessible to disabled refugees attempting to make their way in a new land. It’s not hostile in the same ways the old one was, but it comes with its own safety risks and accompanying problems.

To be disabled and seek asylum status is a leap into the unknown. There are no assurances of getting asylum, of receiving assistance, of having a fighting chance in a new country, of being able to access needed services once you arrive. People make the choice to pursue asylum every day because the alternative isn’t tenable, but the search for asylum is no less frightening. A global commitment to disability issues must include a framework for addressing disability in the refugee community, ensuring that people are able to seek asylum and can be assured of reasonable treatment upon their arrival.

Advocacy groups working on this very issue have proposals for revamping the approach to asylum and handling refugees, and it’s up to members of the public to push elected officials and decision makers to consider adopting these proposals.