Invisible and Forgotten: Refugees Living with Disabilities

By Francis Okot Oyat (Published 4th December 2017)

On Sunday 3rd December we once again commemorated International Day of Disabled Persons under the theme Transformation Towards Sustainable and Resilient Society for All”. It is an important day proclaimed and observed by the United Nations since 1992 for promoting and creating awareness about the plights of persons living with

disabilities. It reminds us of the global commitment to challenge all forms of social stigma and discrimination towards persons living with disability, and to support in all possible ways, initiatives that improve self-esteem and wellbeing through active participation and inclusion of all persons living with disabilities. 

According to the World Health Organization, 2.9 percent of the world’s total population lives with severe forms of disabilities. A further 12.4 percent have moderate long-term disabilities. (WHO, The Global Burden of Disease: 2004 Update (Geneva: WHO, 2008), 34. See also WHO, World Report on Disability (Geneva: WHO and World Bank, 2011), Chapter 2). The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) estimates that 1.9 million out of the 65.3 million persons of concern, including asylum seekers, refugees and internally displaced persons have severe disabilities. However, ascertaining the exact numbers of refugees living with disability in Uganda remains a huge task.

Following the slogan “Nothing About Us Without Us”, refugees living with disabilities struggle for voice and inclusion in the aftermath of conflicts, yet many have become physically incapacitated as a result of the contemporary conflicts which have been argued to be more deadly for civilians. (Dryden-Peterson, S., 2006. “I find myself as someone who is in the forest”: Urban refugees as agents of social change in Kampala, Uganda. Journal of Refugee Studies, 19(3), pp.381–395). Besides, refugees living with disability have to come to terms with the hardships of lives in limbo in prolonged displacement, and away from the care and protection of and by their loved ones. 

No country can yet claim to have fully applied to displaced persons the principles contained in the landmark United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD), but Uganda has demonstrated commitment to ensuring the protection of all persons living with disability. Uganda’s Constitution expressly stipulates that “Persons with disabilities have a right to respect and human dignity, and the State and society shall take appropriate measures to ensure that they realise their full mental and physical potential.” Furthermore, The Persons with Disabilities Act, 2006 and The National Policy on Persons with Disabilities, 2006 provide for access to the physical environment, education, health, employment, and information for all persons living with disabilities. At international level, Uganda is also party to the United Nations Convention on the on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, 2007. While the laws in and by themselves are not enough, Uganda has garnered commendable successes in regard to protection of persons living with disabilities.

Apart from hospitals, most housing structures including public offices in Uganda are inaccessible, or disability unfriendly. While PWDs should be able to live in well facilitated homes and environments, a significant number of refugees, especially urban refugees residing in slum areas of Kampala (including but not limited to Katwe, Nsambya, Kawala, Nabulagala, Kisenyi) have to struggle with poor housing and sanitation facilities. It is particularly difficult when refugees living with disabilities are obliged to share toilet facilities which are most times constructed without consideration of these specific needs and vulnerabilities of PWDs. 

Currently, Uganda is grappling with unprecedented levels of unemployment. In urban areas only a negligible number of refugees are employed in the mainstream job market. Many survive on handouts and petty businesses such as street vending. Some of these activities require access to capital, physical strength, language competencies, and rigorous mobility, criteria only a handful of refugees living with disability can meet.

The above gruesome challenges confronting refugees living with disability are compounded by stigma and discrimination. Long-held negative attitudes towards disability continue to present huge barriers in access to and uptake of services for persons living with disability. It is not uncommon for refugees living with disability to be discriminated and considered as less human, as burdens, an inconvenience, and a curse on their families and communities. The boundary between disability and inability is only understood by a few, and there are few efforts towards ameliorating the sufferings, enhancing potentials, and resource allocation. This further compounds the verbal, physical and psychological abuse heaped onto refugees living with disability alongside cases of denial of opportunities, and exclusion in family and community activities.

While humanitarian and development organisations continue to offer a wide range of services to persons with special needs (PSNs), many service providers appear oblivious to pertinent issues reported by refugees living with disability – not least the herculean challenges in accessing services. Besides inaccessible office spaces discussed above, refugees with disability struggle for voice and active participation right from grassroots to national structures. The refugee-led groups for advocacy are often ill-equipped and facilitated, and have limited active involvement in advocacy on disability-related issues. These are some of the factors that frustrate efforts towards building a sustainable and resilient society for all.

As a nation, we cannot pretend that all is well in regards to the protection of refugees living with disability. While we celebrate relative successes thus far, it is also crucial that the commemoration of the International Day of Disabled Persons opens more spaces for inclusive discussions on holistic protection of refugee persons living with disabilities through; 

  • A well-established psychosocial support mechanism to address emotional and psychosocial needs through supporting social networks for refugees living with disability
  • Improve documentation of and reporting on refugees living with disability for effective planning and service delivery
  • Support awareness raising and sensitization on national and international policy frameworks and legislations governing persons with disability including but not limited to the UN Convention on the Rights of PWDs
  • Challenge stigma and discrimination in whatever form by supporting proactive strategies geared towards addressing exclusions right from family levels through to community, national, and international level. 

We all have a role to play! Whether as researchers, human rights defenders, civil society organisations, media practitioners, and donor community, we need to make individual and institutional commitments to support and empower individuals and groups of refugees living with disabilities. 

The author works at Refugee Law Project as a Social Worker/Counsellor under the Mental Health and Psychosocial Wellbeing Programme.


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