Refugees with Disabilities: A stigmatised and often hidden group

By: Vicki McKenna

On October 17, Special Olympics has brought together thought leaders in the industry
to discuss the most vulnerable and least served population within the global displacement crisis in Brussels, Belgium
Photo-Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia

All refugees face enormous hardship when fleeing their country of origin whether on account of conflict, persecution, political or religious beliefs for example. However, the challenges are multiplied in the case of refugees with disabilities who not only are more vulnerable to violence, but are also often the last ones to flee or are in some cases left behind by relatives and communities who are fleeing.

Among the 65.6 million people displaced around the world, it is estimated that 10 million have disabilities, with around half a million having an intellectual disability (ID). The UN Refugee Agency, (UNHCR) has identified a whole range of barriers which refugees with disabilities face. For instance, their specific needs are often overlooked, especially in the early phases of humanitarian emergencies, while, education systems in host countries may not be inclusive or have limited capacity to include refugee children with disabilities. UNHCR further underlines that women, children and older persons with disabilities, are especially at risk of, exploitation, violence, and sexual and gender-based violence

European Disability Forum has further pointed to the hurdles refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities encounter both on their journey to safety and while being hosted in the hot spots and relief centres. For example, they may encounter “lack of accessibility to assistance and protection risks, lack of access to medical care, as well as insufficient access to assistive technology which could make mobility and communication easier.”

According to UNHCR statistics, 84% of the world’s refugees were hosted in developing countries in 2016. However, a lot of these places don’t have specific services in place or have limited capacity to respond to specific needs of refugees, said Kirstin Lange Senior Disability Advisor for UNHCR.

Another key challenge in an emergency context is the under-identification and lack of reliable data on refugees with disabilities, said Kirstin Lange Senior Disability Advisor for UNHCR. High levels of stigma in communities also means that people with disabilities are in many cases hidden, while frontline staff may not have the tools or the specific training to properly identify people with disabilities at that point, Lange explained.

Key disability actors such as Handicap International and International Disability Alliance have emphasised the need to improve the availability of quality data on persons with disabilities and increase its use by humanitarian organisations. Specifically, they recommend the use of the Washington Group on Disability Statistics which were established in 2001 under the UN Statistical Commission. Its goal is to “develop and test tools to collect internationally comparable disability statistics, and to help actors better identify persons with disabilities.”

In 2016’s New York Declaration for Refugees and Migrants, all 193 Member States of the United Nations agreed that protecting those who are forced to flee and supporting the countries that shelter them are “shared international responsibilities” that must be “borne more equitably.” The Declaration gave UNHCR the task of building upon the Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework, contained in the New York Declaration, to develop “a global compact on refugees,” which will be presented to the General Assembly in 2018.

“The Comprehensive Refugee Response Framework is being implemented in a number of countries and I think that gives us a really good opportunity to work together with host governments to ensure that the refugee response plan that are developed also include persons with disabilities and also that persons with disabilities are part of implementing those plans.

I think one of the big gaps at the moment is lacking data on refugees with disabilities and it makes it very difficult for us to be able to monitor access to services, to have figures to provide a basis for planning,” Lange noted.

Organisations of persons with disabilities, such as the International Disability Alliance, (IDA) are further playing a role in the development of the Global Compact, ensuring that the refugee response is informed by the experiences of persons with disabilities, Lange continued.

In some final comments, Lange noted the need to build the capacity of national systems that support persons with disabilities. Efforts to promote implementation of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) could include strengthening inclusive education and ensuring that people with disabilities have access to work.

The most important thing is that we ensure that “we consult with persons with disabilities, understand where they’re not getting access and why not and what we need to do differently and also to work with them when we’re implementing services, that they’re implemented in a way that is accessible to persons with disabilities and to work with them to monitor access,” Lange concluded.

Amid this context of forced displacement and exploitation of persons with intellectual disabilities, the Special Olympics Movement provides an opportunity to engage “marginalized youth” that otherwise would not have the opportunity for this type of community-based interaction, especially inclusive sports.  Rather than depicting refugees with intellectual disabilities as only beneficiaries of service and social inclusion programming, they are in fact positioned to be leaders through this Movement.

“We know that our inclusive sports programme, Unified Sports, has a unique way of engaging individuals of all abilities, and when this programming is coupled with additional models of youth development, in-school activities, and family engagement, the results are extraordinary for everyone.  We are excited to see that national and community stakeholders have showed strong receptivity to our model, and equally excited to know that collaboration has begun with a range of external stakeholders, civil society, governments, even the National Olympic Committees,” said David Evangelista, President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia.

Unified Sports is one of the main pillars of the Special Olympics Movement and sees athletes with and without intellectual disabilities play sport together, often on the same teams and also as playing partners. Of the 5.6M Special Olympics athletes worldwide, more than 725,000 are Unified partners. And the number is growing as the benefits of this model to break down barriers and misunderstanding among youths grows in popularity.

However, children with intellectual disabilities continue to face greater challenges than their peers without intellectual disabilities. It’s a population that for millennia has been “isolated and relegated to the margins,” facing some of “the most grotesque forms of abuse”, David Evangelista, President and Managing Director, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia emphasised.

“If you’re a child with an intellectual disability, you’re facing far greater challenges than your peer who doesn’t have an intellectual disability.  If you compound that in a refugee setting where you’re on the move and you’re displaced – whether that means you’re in a different country or in your own country – most of the agencies within the global development community will share that they don’t have the capacity, the training, or the resources to adequately support this population.

They often lack the psycho- social support, expertise and services, and most of all, there is no real infrastructure to provide the type of social protection needed.   This is the reality,” Evangelista added.

The UN has indicated that 90% of children with disabilities in Sub-Saharan Africa will never go to school. Thus, if you combine that with the fact that disability is intrinsically linked to poverty and conflict, this figure will only increase because the prevalence of disability has now become exacerbated by conflict, unrest, sustained abuse, and extreme poverty that exists in many of those countries, Evangelista explained.

On the other hand, the Special Olympics can play a role in using sport to give them access to primary and secondary schooling.  This Movement advocates “for the rights of individuals with intellectual disabilities wherever they reside” and “amplifies a voice” that is not being heard, Evangelista stressed.

Abdullah Najim’s story highlights the extreme difficulties faced by persons with intellectual disabilities. Born in Iraq, Abdullah was kidnapped by a militant group when he was six years old. After his father paid a ransom for his release, Abdullah subsequently fled Baghdad with his family, firstly to Syria and then to Cyprus.

Speaking about their experiences, Abudullah’s father, Abdul Amir Najem, says that: “The main reason for leaving Baghdad was that me and my family had been constantly threatened by terrorist organisations and it was a high risk to stay because of a big danger on our life.”

Pointing to the impact the Special Olympics has had on Abdullah, Najem noted that the Movement helped him especially “to have more friends and more challenges.” Also, he became very happy and proud when he got his golden medal this year,’ Najem continued.

Abdullah Amin of Special Oympics Cyprus
Photo-Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia

Abdullah’ story epitomises the values underpinning the Special Olympics. In March this year, for example, he won a gold medal as part of the Cyprus team that won the floorball tournament in the 2017 Special Olympics Winter Games in Austria.

Stressing the importance of sport in his life, Abdullah underlined that it enabled him to achieve all of his ambitions. He further emphasised that the best moment of the Special Olympics was when he became a champion in Austria.

Austria World Winter Games featuring refugee Special Olympics athlete Abdullah
Photo-Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia

Persons with intellectual disabilities are confronted with extensive discrimination and violation of their rights in the Middle East, from social exclusion to physical abuse and bullying. Mina Bahgat, a refugee from the Middle East faced difficulties not only on account of discrimination towards his intellectual disability, but also faced further persecution because of his religious beliefs.

Maria Kodsy describes the specific difficulties, her son Mina Bahgat faced while in the Middle East.  “When he walked on the street, they got afraid of him, they ran from him and they didn’t like to communicate with him. In the Middle East, you don’t have levels of disability, so you have to choose the very lowest level for studying or go for a normal school.

I had to apply to a normal school for him and it was so hard for Mina there. The school itself started to treat him very badly and one time he was beaten there. I had to let him stay at home and then he only went for exams, so he spent most of his life at home, doing his activities at home, but he couldn’t go out,” Kodsy said.

Drawing a comparison between the situation for persons with intellectual disabilities in the Netherlands and the Middle East, Kodsy underlines that: “In Holland, even with the sport, they put everyone in his level and everyone they put in the right place.”

Mina Baghat along with two other teammates from Special Olympics Netherlands
Photo Special Olympics Europe-Eurasia

The Special Olympics has given Mina more self-confidence, allowing him to travel alone. Bahgat explains how the Special Olympics has impacted on his life: “They let me help to change the world. Some people say you can’t do it. I’m saying yes, the Special Olympics can help to change the world with sports.”

He notes how he won two medals for the Netherlands, adding that he also carried the Special Olympics flag during the opening ceremony. “All the people from every country were following me when I was carrying the flag,” said Bahgat.

Special Olympics Netherlands athlete Mina Bahgat leading the parade of athletes
at Special Olympics World Winter Games in Austria 2017

Photo: GEPA pictures/ Mathias Mand

Another key achievement was his invitation from humanitarian organisation, the Lions Club International to speak at the General Assembly in New York in March of this year. During this speech, he stressed that the Special Olympics had changed his life. “I have friends now, I lost 20 kilos because of this sport, I speak better Dutch than my mother. I learned to speak Dutch through sports.

“I like Holland so much, because it’s my country, it’s my home. In the Middle East, I couldn’t go out, in the Middle East, I couldn’t do sport, if I used a bike, they thought I was crazy, it’s only for children. Holland is important for mixed sport, I can go out, I’m not afraid here,” Bahgat concludes.