(New York, December 3, 2015) – People with disabilities face added risks of abandonment, neglect, and lack of equal access to food and healthcare during conflict and displacement, Human Rights Watch said today, on the International Day of Persons with Disabilities.
While governments, donors, and aid agencies are overwhelmed with many competing priorities during emergencies, they should ensure that the needs and concerns of people with disabilities are addressed in humanitarian efforts. Between January and November 2015, Human Rights Watch has interviewed more than 100 people with disabilities, along with their families, and assessed their needs during the current conflicts in Yemen and the Central African Republic, as well as the European refugee crisis.
“Just as women and children are uniquely affected by conflict and displacement, people with disabilities face special challenges when their lives are suddenly uprooted because of war,” said Shantha Rau Barriga, disability rights director at Human Rights Watch. “While donors and aid agencies are juggling multiple concerns during conflict, they should ensure that people with disabilities get the help they need.”
Human Rights Watch documented the situation of a young man in a wheelchair locked up in an immigration detention center in Hungary for crossing the border from Serbia. “Ayman,” 28, has a physical disability from an injury incurred when a rocket fell on his home in Damascus. When Human Rights Watch interviewed him in October, he had been locked up for more than 40 days. He told us that his wheelchair had broken at the border, and he spent 23 days lying on a bed until his lawyer was able to get a donated wheelchair for him. “Every two or three days all the others are taken out to the courtyard to get some fresh air, for 15 or 20 minutes,” he said. “I haven’t been out for 42 days because of the stairs. Even animals are treated better. We haven’t done anything wrong, why are we here.”
While anyone affected by a crisis needs help, people with disabilities are especially at at risk. Challenges created by war, natural disasters, and other situations of risk are compounded for people with disabilities by physical, communication, and other barriers.
For example, people with disabilities often have difficulty getting aid because facilities are not designed to allow independent navigation by people who are blind or use wheelchairs, and information is not provided in accessible, easy-to-understand formats.
Jean, a man with a physical disability whom Human Rights Watch met in the Mpoko camp for internally displaced people in the Central African Republic in January, said: “My tricycle doesn’t fit inside the toilet so I have to get down on all fours and crawl. Initially I had gloves for my hands so I didn’t get any [feces] on them but now I have to use leaves.” There are 110 people with disabilities still living in the Mpoko camp.
More than one billion people worldwide, or about 15 percent of the global population, have disabilities. According to the Women’s Refugee Commission, 6.7 million people with disabilities are forcibly displaced as a result of persecution and other human rights violations, conflict, and generalized violence. Children with disabilities in particular are at-risk of abandonment and violence during emergency situations, and yet their particular needs are often not taken into account in aid efforts.
Governments, donors, and humanitarian agencies should ensure that the needs of people with disabilities are addressed as a priority in conflict and displacement situations, Human Rights Watch said. Those providing aid should consult with and engage people with disabilities and organizations representing them to develop a more effective and inclusive response.
The World Humanitarian Summit in Istanbul in May 2016 is a prime opportunity to ensure that the voices of people with disabilities are heard in this debate, Human Rights Watch said. Governments and United Nations agencies should develop and endorse global standards and guidelines on disability inclusion in humanitarian action, Human Rights Watch said, together with CBM, Handicap International, International Disability Alliance, Women’s Refugee Commission, and other partners. The standards and guidelines should address coordination, implementation, monitoring and financing, and further support of inclusive practices in all aid programs and efforts.
To date, 160 countries have ratified the UN disability rights treaty, including Yemen, Syria, and most European countries. In addition to rights to accessibility, healthcare, and education, the treaty includes a specific provision that calls on governments to ensure the safety and protection of people with disabilities in situations of risk and humanitarian emergencies.
“The armed conflicts filling the headlines highlight the need to ensure that thousands of people with disabilities are not forgotten,” Barriga said. “It is vitally important for governments and aid agencies delivering emergency relief to be inclusive when they provide services.”
For detailed information and recommendations about Yemen, the Central African Republic, and the European refugee crisis, please see below:
Human Rights Watch interviewed 29 Yemenis with disabilities and their families in November 2015. The UN estimates that 21.2 million people – 82 percent of the Yemeni population – require some form of humanitarian assistance, of whom 3 million are people with disabilities. People with disabilities in Yemen are facing growing challenges in meeting their most basic needs. For example, many are unable to obtain essential medications and remain isolated in their homes.
According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA), Yemen’s healthcare system is on the brink of total collapse due to the ongoing conflict and the blockade imposed by the Saudi-led coalition of Arab countries. As of mid-October, 69 healthcare facilities had been damaged, 27 ambulances hijacked, and eight aid workers killed. For people with chronic illnesses or conditions that require frequent attention, the inflated price of medication and fuel and the lack of facilities have serious consequences. The closure of nearly 300 organizations that provided specialty services to people with disabilities in Yemen further deepens the dearth of support.
For example, Hanan, a 4-year-old girl with cerebral palsy and epilepsy in Yemen, needs medications that have become unaffordable as the conflict has continued. Hanan’s father told Human Rights Watch: “Her medication is important for her health because when she takes it regularly, she only experiences an epileptic seizure once every two weeks. But when she does not take the medicine, she experiences a seizure twice a day…. It’s hard to feel useless.”
Damage to existing infrastructure and roads make parts of Yemen difficult to navigate for people with disabilities. Hind, a 25-year-old woman with a physical disability, told Human Rights Watch that life is “[v]ery tiring… Most of the time I prefer to stay home rather than go out…. Due to my disability I regularly fall on the ground if I don’t watch where I’m putting my legs.”
Muna, a 26-year-old woman who is deaf, told Human Rights Watch about how the conflict has affected her: “Before the war, I was free to go out.… Now I get terrified when I feel explosions shake the house.”
European Refugee Crisis
Since the beginning of Europe’s refugee and migration crisis, Human Rights Watch has conducted interviews with dozens of asylum seekers and migrants, including many people with disabilities, as they entered the Greek islands and crossed land borders with the European Union to seek protection and a better future away from violence.
People with disabilities face great difficulties on the journey from war-torn countries like Syria, Iraq, and Afghanistan to refuge in Europe. On the smuggling boats between Turkey and Greece, they are normally not allowed to take their wheelchairs or other aids. Many Syrians who lost limbs in the relentless bombardment of their country have been carried by relatives and friends for much of the journey, an exhausting experience for both them and those providing assistance.
Sara, a 13-year-old Syrian traveling with her older sister and mother, has a physical disability and diabetes and uses a wheelchair. She told us about her harrowing experience on the rubber boat from Turkey, where she was separated from her family members, ended up in the water at the bottom of the dinghy, swallowed salt water, and fell unconscious. Having fled the war in Syria in July and then turned away from the German and Swedish embassies in Turkey, the family felt they had no choice but to risk their lives. Sara was among the lucky few on Lesbos identified as having particular needs and had been accommodated with her family in a designated camp.
Haled, a 30-year-old Syrian who has serious developmental and intellectual disabilities, gave a similar description of the dangerous journey in a rubber boat packed with about 40 people when interviewed on the island of Lesbos in October: “It [the journey] was very hard. I want to go to Germany. For medical care. People were sitting on me [in the boat] and hurt me and the waves were coming in.”
Ghazal, a 55-year-old economics professor, and his wife Hannan, a 47-year-old physics and chemistry teacher, fled the Syrian city of Aleppo when lack of medical care became a dire concern for their 19-year-old son Karan, who has severe intellectual and physical disabilities. Hannan told Human Rights Watch: “Because of bombs, deaths and weapons, my son’s condition became worse. He started having crises. It affected us so much. He used to take medicines but now there is nothing.”
Hannan, interviewed on the Greek island of Lesbos in May, said that traveling with Karan made their journey slow and difficult.
At points in their journey, the family crammed into small inflatable boats holding as many as 50 to 60 people. Upon reaching the Greek islands, they crossed rough, uneven terrain without any mobility aids for Karan. “The journey was really so tough for my son,” Hannan said. “I did this journey for my son. If it was not for him, I could have stayed back.”
After finally reaching the harbor in Lesbos, the family waited among 400 to 500 other people under a hot sun in sweltering heat. When medical attention arrived, it was of little help. “Here we saw the doctor,” Ghazal said. “He told us, ‘We cannot offer the right medical care for your son here. You’ll need to go to the Netherlands, or Belgium where they have special hospitals.’” Without any other option, the family was unsure about how to continue. Ghazal was concerned that the only route to Belgium or the Netherlands, where the critical treatment for his son is available, might require them to use a smuggler, increasing the risk of injury to Karan.
Human Rights Watch reported that in the chaos on the Greek island of Lesbos, people with disabilities, women with young children, pregnant women, and people with medical conditions are often not identified as being at greater risk. Nor are they ensured that they can register and get proper access to basic services such as food and healthcare. The authorities have said that at-risk groups are entitled to priority in the registration procedure, but people are not aware of this, and the police appear to have no system nor make any effort to identify these groups.
Even when they arrive in countries like Germany, where they seek refugee status, many people with disabilities still struggle to get the help they need. With Western European countries overwhelmed by the large numbers of people arriving to seek asylum, many people with disabilities have to wait for long periods to obtain wheelchairs and specialized care. Mohammed Reda cannot walk because of injuries from an airstrike in Syria. He has been in Germany for eight months but still lacks a wheelchair. He told Human Rights Watch that he has not been outside his apartment for the last month, as there is no one willing to carry him.
Central African Republic
In 2013, the Central African Republic fell into acute violence characterized by widespread attacks against civilians by Muslim Seleka rebels, as well as the opposing anti-balaka rebel groups. Thousands were killed and hundreds of thousands forcibly displaced during the conflict, including people with disabilities. During January and April 2015, Human Rights Watch documented that at least 96 people with disabilities had been abandoned or were unable to escape when their homes came under attack, and 11 had been killed.
For example, Hamamatou, a 13-year-old polio survivor from the Central African Republic, was carried on her brother’s back following an assault on their village. As he grew too tired to continue, Hamamatou begged him to save his own life and leave her. When combatants found her two weeks later, Hamamatou told Human Rights Watch, “The fighters said, ‘We have found an animal. Let’s finish it off.’” Another fighter intervened to save her life.
When people with disabilities reached camps for internally displaced people, they continued to face barriers, Human Rights Watch found. People with physical disabilities, for instance, could not navigate the uneven terrain to reach food or water, and some had to crawl on the ground to enter the toilet, exposing them to potential health risks.
Andet, a 27-year old man who is paralyzed from the waist down, told Human Rights Watch that when food distributions used to take place in the M’Poko camp, the distribution site was inaccessible for him, and people like him would get pushed aside. Sometimes he went without food all day, he said.
In November, Human Rights Watch documented 233 cases of people with disabilities living across 10 displacement sites in Bangui, including 53 people with disabilities who were displaced by the new wave of sectarian violence that has engulfed the capital since September 25.
For people with sensory disabilities, moving around M’Poko camp without assistance can be extremely dangerous. Human Rights Watch heard of several cases in which blind people fell into filthy open sewage drains in the camp, or had been burned by open fires or boiling water. The camp clinic has no one to facilitate communication with people who are deaf. As a result, deaf people who cannot read or write and are not accompanied by a relative or friend who can assist with communication may hesitate to seek medical help or find it difficult to communicate if they do.