As a physiotherapist and the UK Executive Director of Humanity & Inclusion, I have spent a lot of time with refugees and displaced people. Many stories are etched in my memories from my journeys. Stories I heard from families fleeing violence, stories of resilience and hope for the future, but also tragic and shocking stories about disabled people being left behind when their families fled.
When people flee their homes, often for their lives, they have a whole host of challenges to overcome. They often suffer from trauma and injuries due to whatever horrific situation caused them to flee in the first place and from their often perilous journey to safety. They make difficult choices about whether to carry less able family members or leave them behind. They flee with very few belongings, arriving into unfamiliar surroundings where they need to re-start their lives from scratch. When they arrive at their destination, they are reliant on humanitarian assistance for everything from food to medical care, shelter, and water.
What has always struck me, is that amidst all the trauma, new bonds of solidarity are created, to help overcome these challenges. Sometimes this solidarity can be a question of life or death for disabled or injured refugees who cannot move around easily to access aid.
I have seen blind people who were depending on their neighbours to get their food rations as it was difficult for them to walk the long way to the distribution point. I have seen grandmothers in wheelchairs that were depending on their children to bring them to the toilets.
People with disabilities shouldn’t only have to rely on their neighbours, they need to know that the humanitarian aid system is also watching out for them. I have seen the deep injustice facing people with disabilities in refugee camps who are often forgotten and don’t have access to the services they need because the services being provided aren’t accessible or inclusive.
Sadly, people with disabilities are often overlooked in the planning of humanitarian operations and the implementation of these services. According to a study (pdf, 3.5Mb) conducted by Humanity & Inclusion on people with disabilities in humanitarian (emergency) contexts, 75% of disabled people affected by a humanitarian crisis say they do not receive adequate access to basic assistance such as water, food, shelter, and medical care.
Outraged by this injustice, reaching those invisible people is at the heart of our actions in refugee camps. People with disabilities are unintentionally forgotten and our role is to make sure that they receive the support they need.
For example, in the refugee camps in northern Uganda where South Sudanese people fleeing violence are taking refuge, we have a protection team whose role is to go around the camp to identify vulnerable people who struggle to access the support they need.
Our physiotherapists and psychologists move from one end of the camps to the other, providing essential trauma and rehabilitation care. Importantly, we train other humanitarian providers on how to make their food distribution, toilets and play groups accessible and inclusive, and then ensure the people we meet are referred onwards to access these crucial services.
You can learn more about the plight of refugees with disabilities by tuning into Sky News on Wednesday at 9.30pm, to hear renowned photographer Giles Duley talk about his recent experience meeting disabled and injured refugees in Uganda.
As we mark World Refugee Day, this is an opportunity for us to remember that we all need to step up and do more to support disabled refugees.
No refugee should be left behind.
Blog reposted from Huffington Post UK