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Among 100 new migrants arrived on the island of Lesbos since March 1, are a girl using a wheelchair and a boy unable to walk without support, sheltering in two public transport buses, with portable toilets at Mytilene Harbor. © 2020 Grigoris Siamidis

(New York) – Refugees and other displaced people with disabilities face barriers accessing food, hygiene, and basic services, Human Rights Watch said today. The high-level United Nations Economic and Social Council (ECOSOC) meeting which starts on June 9, 2020 should focus on strengthening the humanitarian response to reach people with disabilities.

“Despite commitments in recent years to do better to reach people with disabilities in humanitarian responses, displaced people with disabilities continue to struggle to get even basic services,” said Emina Ćerimović, senior disability rights researcher at Human Rights Watch. “As world leaders discuss how to strengthen humanitarian assistance, they should promise to fund targeted action to reach at-risk groups to keep promises to ‘leave no one behind.’”

The ECOSOC Humanitarian Affairs Segment (HAS) virtual meeting brings together UN leaders, member states, development groups, and humanitarian organizations to discuss the most pressing humanitarian issues across the globe, particularly in light of the Covid-19 pandemic.

Globally, an estimated 9.7 million people with disabilities have been forcibly displaced as a result of conflict and persecution. According to the December 2019 UN Humanitarian Needs Assessment Programme (HNAP) report on Syria, an estimated 37 percent of the people displaced in Syria have a disability.

The Covid-19 pandemic has exacerbated the already difficult situation for refugees and internally displaced people with disabilities. According to protection assessment by the UN refugee agency, UNHCR, of the Covid-19 impact on refugees in Lebanon in April 2020, 84 percent of refugees with a disability in Lebanon cited food insecurity as their foremost concern. The vast majority of refugees in Lebanon are from Syria.

Human Rights Watch interviewed a dozen refugees with disabilities and their families by phone in Lebanon, Syria, and Greece, between March and May. They reported difficulties in paying rent, accessing sanitation and assistive devices, and buying basic necessities, including food, medicine, and soap. They said these problems had grown worse during the pandemic.

All refugees in Lebanon interviewed said they had to eliminate healthy and nutrient rich food from their diet. Three said the cash assistance they received from humanitarian organizations helped them meet some of their needs, but not all. A mother of five children, three of whom have a disability, said her family is struggling to afford soap. “I prefer to use that money for food if I can,” she said.

A Syrian man who uses crutches and lives in the Moria refugee camp on Lesbos, Greece, said that waiting in long lines for food and for washing and sanitation facilities was especially difficult for him and others with disabilities. He said he had to ask friends to help him wash, as there are no sanitation facilities adapted and accessible for people with disabilities.

Human Rights Watch first reported on inaccessible camp facilities in Greece in 2016. Human Rights Watch found that asylum seekers and refugees with disabilities were not properly identified in Greece, and that they had difficulties getting basic services such as shelter and medical care, and had limited access to mental health services.

The inability to practice effective hygiene or get healthcare services puts refugees with disabilities at increased risk of infection and illness from Covid-19.

The UN has made several policy commitments recently regarding people with disabilities in humanitarian crises, including with regard to the Covid-19 pandemic. In June 2019, the UN Security Council adopted its first resolution on the protection of people with disabilities in armed conflict. In November, the UN issued Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action to help humanitarian agencies, governments, and affected communities to include people with disabilities in all phases of humanitarian action – from planning, to coordination, to monitoring. The UN’s May 2020 Covid-19 Global Humanitarian Response Plan promised to address the needs of people most at risk, including people with disabilities. On June 3, the UN secretary-general published a policy brief on Covid-19 and migration that recognized the disproportionate obstacles faced by people on the move who live with a disability during the Covid-19 pandemic.

Despite these initiatives, implementation has been slow. A senior official at a leading international humanitarian organization told Human Rights Watch in May: “We have strengthened our internal procedure to make sure it better takes into consideration people with disabilities, but our internal facts and figures show that on the ground, not much has changed.”

“World leaders have made bold commitments to include and protect refugees and displaced people, who have long been forgotten,” Ćerimović said. “Now governments need to step up and provide meaningful financial and other support to make those commitments a reality. People with disabilities are counting on them to come through.”

Statements by refugees and displaced people with disabilities and families in Lebanon and Syria. All names have been changed to protect their privacy.


Ala lives in an informal tented settlement in Lebanon. She is pregnant and has five children, three of whom have a disability. She said that she often cannot afford soap and nutrient rich food. She said that her family sold one child’s wheelchair to pay for items they considered more essential and rent. “We ran out of money last month and did not pay the rent,” she said. “We might be evicted soon.”


In Lebanon, Ahmed, who is from Syria and is blind, lives with his four children and his mother, who has a physical disability. He said:

We only buy soap. We don’t buy personal care and other hygiene products because we cannot afford them. Food is very expensive. We don’t buy healthy food anymore, like vegetables. We [only buy] rice and pasta, cheap things. [And] for five months I haven’t paid my rent. Before [Covid-19], I used to work, but now it is very hard. Even medication. My kids need medication and vitamins, but we can’t buy this. I am tired of this life. Of not having any money and not having any food.

Another blind Syrian refugee and father of two living in Lebanon said he had to take loans from supermarkets to buy food for his family.


Dua lives in a building under construction in Lebanon and has seven children, three of whom have disabilities. “I cannot afford to buy personal care and cleaning products,” she said. “Everything has changed now.” Dua said she fears eviction because her family has not paid rent since her husband lost his job due to the Covid-19 lockdown. “Mentally I am very tired,” she said. “Because of this situation, because of Covid-19, because of the rent and my little kid. I am so tired.”


Rami, a 31-year-old man with a physical disability lives in a rented house in Lebanon with 14 other members of his extended family. He said they have not been able to pay rent for a month and that his family had to stop eating nutrient-rich food. “I used to take medications for my mental health condition and for my stomach, but now I don’t take any of it,” he said. Financially I can’t afford to.”


In March, Human Rights Watch interviewed three people with disabilities who are internally displaced in Idlib governorate in northwest Syria who reported difficulties in getting medical and other services, including assistive devices. One woman with a physical disability said that she has tried through several organizations to get a prosthetic leg, without success.

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