Approximately seven to ten percent of refugees around the world have a disability. Refugees with disabilities face heightened challenges and require special medical attention when displaced, but they are the group most likely to remain unseen in every aspect of humanitarian assistance. The conditions of the refugee camps in Greece are reflective of how refugees with disabilities remain hidden in the asylum process.
Greece’s treatment of refugees with disabilities demonstrates the extensive problems refugees face because of the lack of attention to this issue. The European Union has provided substantial funding to Greece to maintain “hotspot” asylum camps but refugees with disabilities continue to struggle in attaining shelter, sanitation, medical care, and mental health care. Overcrowding of the Greek camps and the strains of the EU-Turkey deal to relocate refugees from the overflowing Greek islands to Turkey amplify these challenges.
Greece formerly labelled asylum seekers with registered disabilities as “vulnerable.” This distinction allowed exemptions from the border process that sends refugees back to Turkey, priority in the system, and issuance of asylum cards that allow free movement around the mainland and access to medical services. In December 2016, however, the EU encouraged Greece to abolish the “vulnerability” assessment because the practice was unsustainable. Contrarily, a representative of Doctors Without Borders stated that not enough refugees are being identified as “vulnerable” even though they meet the criteria.
The lack of services available to refugees with disabilities at asylum camps is regrettably pervasive. For example, one deaf man from Syria was unable to get hearing aids. Another Iraqi couple were unable to register their physical disabilities because they lacked documentation as proof. Many of the Greek camps reportedly lack accessible toilets and showers. One elder Syrian woman was unable to shower for an entire month and parents of an eight-year-old from Afghanistan were reduced to putting their disabled son in diapers because the toilets were inaccessible. Clearly the lack of appropriate accommodations and services for individuals with disabilities at the camps does not fulfil their basic human needs.
A major factor that impedes access to treatment is identifying refugees with disabilities. One medical professional at a camp in Greece stated that, due to a lack of resources, time, and expertise, many refugees with disabilities are not identified if their disability is not visible. Additionally, a psychologist in a camp in Thessaloniki stated that there was previously no safe space available for refugees to share their problems, but they have recently received a transport container where people can meet with him behind closed doors. Another representative, however, stated that some of those safe spaces are not accessible to people with physical disabilities because they lack ramps, for example.
The experience of refugees in Greece is reflective of a global crisis for displaced people with disabilities. For example, Canada’s Immigration and Refugee Protection Act forbids the admission of foreign nationals whose health conditions are expected to cause burdens on health or social services; this provision was seen when a family was denied residency because their son with Down syndrome was expected to impose higher education costs. Moreover, the Dubs program, a resettlement scheme for vulnerable child refugees in the United Kingdom, was recently suspended, leaving displaced children with mobility problems and learning disabilities without sanctuary.
While limited, there are some obligations for nations to provide adequate services to refugees with disabilities. Rule 21 of the Standard Rules on the Equalization of Opportunities for Persons with Disabilities calls for UN member states to take steps to provide equal opportunities for those with disabilities, including refugees. Article 4 of the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities holds that State Parties must undertake to ensure the protection and promotion of human rights of persons with disabilities in all policies and programs. This extends to asylum programs during humanitarian emergencies as defined under Article 11 and the right to acquire documentation of nationality under Article 18. Article 24 of UNHCR’s Convention and Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees holds that member states must provide refugees the same treatment given to citizens with respect to social security, which includes disability and old age. These rules implore member states to address the issue of refugees with disabilities, although they are minimal in their obligations.
The UNHCR co-funded a report by the Women’s Commission for Refugee Women and Children on refugees with disabilities. The report found that data on this topic is lacking, inconsistent, or inaccurate. Clearly, more research is required to understand the specific areas in which resources for refugees with disabilities are lacking so that specific obligations can be defined for asylum nations. Refuge nations should adhere to the provisions of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities and the Convention on the Status of Refugees by providing reasonable accommodations, affording refugees with disabilities the same status as their non-disabled counterparts, and engaging in research on the intersection of refugees and individuals with disabilities.