The Syria and Iraq conflicts have resulted in the largest humanitarian crisis since World War II. Millions of people have been displaced from their homes, and quite often from access to healthcare and social services. This is particularly problematic for the most vulnerable or disadvantaged groups in society: the elderly, children, pregnant women and people with disabilities. Disabled people represent a very large minority, consisting of between one sixth and one fifth of the general population in most countries. When conflict and disasters occur, people with disabilities can face hardships that are often greater than those of the majority of the population. There is also the risk that people develop mental health issues due to the traumatic situation they have experienced. Responses to these situations often adopt a one-size-fits-all approach, often neglecting the individual assistance needed for many disabled people and their families.
The United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UN CRPD), ratified by the European Union and 25 EU Member States, tackles precisely this issue in Article 11 which obliges: “State Parties (to) take, in accordance with their obligations under international law, (…) all necessary measures 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”.
There is barely no data available on both the numbers of refugees with disabilities and their access to much needed health and social services. Reports and discussions with organisations working in the field all state concerns that the needs on the ground far outweigh the available services, in particular for refugees with intellectual disabilities. One of the major problems at stake is the disconnect between the organisations providing the much needed humanitarian assistance and the mainstream and specialised services within the local community, both within and outside of Europe.
The major initiatives launched by the European Union – the European Agenda on Migration and the Refugees Facility for Turkey- provide very little information about any particular response to the situation of refugees with disabilities, focusing on the broader situation of vulnerable groups, especially children.
Given the dire situation on-the-ground and the EU’s responsibilities with regard to the UN CRPD, this must change! Four important steps are needed: (1) Improve the information available on the situation on-the-ground for refugees with disabilities and what authorities are doing to support them. (2) Develop a detailed action plan on the protection and empowerment of refugees and migrants with disabilities, developed in cooperation with disabled people’s organisations (DPOs), organisations working on humanitarian affairs, health and social service providers and other relevant stakeholders. The Council of Europe’s publications on disaster preparedness for people with disabilities could provide a good basis for such an action plan. (3) Support projects to strengthen cooperation between organisations working in the field of humanitarian affairs, health and social service providers and DPOs. (4) Provide adequate financial support to ensure that refugees with disabilities have equal access to health and social services, whilst not subtracting the financial resources from programmes targeting other disadvantaged groups.