The Fifth Annual Shafallah Forum focused on crisis, conflict and disability, and attracted the First Spouses of more than a dozen world leaders, along with roughly 250 attendees from around the world. The event was hosted by Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser Al Missned in Qatar at the Shafallah Center for Children with Special Needs.
Coming on the heels of such disasters as the devastating earthquake and tsunami in Japan last spring, famine in the Horn of Africa and floods in the Philippines, along with the continuing reconstruction efforts in Haiti, the Shafallah Forum highlighted not only the strain these events have placed on individuals and societies, but also the increased severity these conditions place on people with disabilities.
Hassan Ali Bin Ali, chairman of the Shafallah Center, opened the forum along with Ron McCallum, chair of the United Nations Committee on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, and Louise Aubin, professor and deputy director of the International Protection for the United Nations High Commission for Refugees.
In his welcoming remarks, Ali Bin Ali called on those countries that have not signed the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities to do so as a means to better cope with natural disasters.
“Although we have made long strides in the advancement of the rights of the disabled,” he noted, “There is still much more we can do.”
In the forum’s first panel discussion, “Refugees with Disabilities,” Teymoor Nabili, an anchor for Al Jazeera, moderated a discussion examining the conditions in refugee camps and evaluating how technology and resources can promote a more inclusive environment, equal opportunities and community independence.
The panel was chaired by Sarah Costa, PhD, executive director of the Women’s Refugee Commission. She stressed registration as the first step in identifying and addressing conditions that affect refugees with disabilities, urging that measures be adopted: “We need to start identifying the people with disabilities at the time of refugee registration, and break it down on the basis of age, gender and profile of disability.” She also reinforced the notion that “disability is not inability.”
This year’s forum addresses the intersection of crisis, conflict and disability as a means to bring attention to the “double discrimination” affecting refugees with disabilities. Francesca Bonelli of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees, and Scholastica Nasinyama of InterAid, suggested that refugees with disabilities face multiple challenges, including being shunned by their communities. They also lack infrastructure, migratory status, permanent residence, basic sanitation, and adequate living conditions that enable their mobility.
In Uganda in particular, decades of civil war have created more than 160,000 refugees, according to government figures cited by Yusrah Nagujja, disability officer of the Refugee Law.
She estimates that 2000 of Uganda’s refugees have disabilities, and cautioned that these figures have likely been underreported. On top of that, many Ugandans have fled into neighboring countries following violence spurred by the Lord’s Resistance Army. Famine in East Africa has exasperated these conditions. She called for research and data, along with funding to promote economic empowerment, resources and job skills.
The second panel shifted the focus to persons with disabilities amongst the displaced refugee communities in the Occupied Territories, Lebanon, Jordan and Syria. Five years into the global economic crisis, with stagnant recovery amongst donor countries, organizations operating within the Occupied Territories face a shrinking pool of funds. This, coupled with “donor fatigue,” means fewer resources to address the conditions of people with disabilities in the Palestinian Territories.
Rana Al Zawawi and Hasan Husein of the United Nations Relief and Works Agency compared their struggles working with Palestinians with disabilities, both as refugees outside the Palestinian Territories and within the Gaza Strip, respectively. As a Palestinian with disability living in the Gaza Strip, Osama Abu Safer shared his experiences in coping with a Gaza that had been broadly destroyed during the 2009 Israeli bombardment.
During plenary remarks at the day’s luncheon, Cherie Blair, co-chair of the Shafallah Center and wife of former British Prime Minister Tony Blair, acknowledged the center’s growth and expansion since the forum’s 2006 inception.
Following Blair’s plenary remarks, UN Under Secretary General for Humanitarian Affairs and Emergency Relief Coordinator Valerie Amos lauded Her Highness Sheikha Moza bint Nasser and the state of Qatar for their efforts to alleviate the plight of those with disabilities around the world. Offering a figure from the recent natural disasters in the Philippines, Amos highlighted that “only 120 out of 1256 people—or 10 percent of people with disabilities had shelter in hard hit areas after the Philippine floods.” Finding ways to manage and deal with these issues is an important matter of discussion at this year’s forum.
On the second day, panelists discussed inclusion efforts for women, children and minorities the world over— from refugee camps in Kenya to the flood plains of Pakistan. And disability experts addressed the need for poverty-reduction strategies and independence amid a period of profound global economic downturn.
In a discussion on community-based efforts to aid persons with disabilities, Rooshey Hasnain, project director of the University of Illinois at Chicago, called on the international community to take proactive steps in crisis management, instead of addressing disasters in an ad hoc manner. Referencing figures from Hurricane Katrina, a Category 5 hurricane that devastated New Orleans in 2005, Hasnain cited that nearly “25 percent of the African-Americans who were affected by the storm’s destruction were disabled.”
However, she noted that even in the face of total chaos, natural disasters could bring about positive change. After an earthquake struck Izmit, Turkey, in August 1999, the Turkish community responded to its lack of mental-health services—one mental health specialist for every 100,000 citizens and a mere 50 child physiotherapists in the totality of Anatolia—by expanding services to those with developmental disabilities. Hasnain stated that although it took a natural disaster to spur change, the Izmit earthquake was a teachable moment for the Turkish people.
Not all natural disasters have brought reform in affected countries. Though both Bangladesh and Pakistan have suffered heavy flooding in the last several years, they were still ill prepared to meet the needs of more recent flood victims, let alone the needs of those with disabilities. Nazmul Bari, director of the Center for Disability in Development, cited the World Risk Report for 2011, which listed Bangladesh as the second riskiest country for investment in the South Asia-Pacific region, because 20 percent to 68 percent of the country is prone to flooding.
“Large-scale flooding causes major accessibility issues for persons with disabilities,” said Ghulam Nabi Nizamani, CEO of the Pakistan Disabled Peoples’ Organization. He is from Baluchistan, a semi-arid province in southeastern Pakistan that receives minimal amounts of rain annually, overwhelming the region when torrential rains fell for five hours and caused severe flooding.
Devon Cone, a protection officer with Refugee Point, shared her experience of dealing with discrimination at the Dadaab Refugee Camp in Northern Kenya, one the largest refugee camps in the world with hundreds of thousands of displaced Somalis.
Refugees with disabilities, specifically children, face harassment from fellow refugees who are not wellversed in dealing with persons with disabilities. In Dadaab, Refugee Point works for inclusive processes of involving the disability community in outreach, education and planning. She has found counseling intervention the most efficient and direct way to improve the livelihoods of those with disabilities and their families. “Community support structures are an effective form” of raising the quality of life for those doubly discriminated against in refugee camps.
“At-risk women, children and minorities with disabilities, whether displaced by natural disaster or conflict, compete with other victims or refugees for goods and services and as a consequence, suffer two-fold,” said Cone. She highlighted that in an effort to ensure the safety of children with disabilities in Dabaab, several women came together to care for these children while their parents sought food, services and treatment.
Panelists called for local, community-based solutions to improve the conditions of persons with disabilities that are proactive, not reactive, as well as cooperative and direct, so as to create more efficient and effective ways of addressing the many issues faced by those with disabilities, whether in cities or refugee camps.
On day three, Ali Bin Ali held an international press conference, calling for inclusion, implementation and reaffirmation of “rights-based frameworks” in response to emergency and post-conflict scenarios.
He announced the creation of One Billion Strong, an international NGO focusing on elevating the status of persons with disabilities. He defined the objectives of the organization as petitioning to “support the true implementation of the United Nations Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities through global awareness-raising of disability issues and in-country development programs at the community level.”
He summarized the forum’s three main recommendations on ways to address disability in crisis and conflict scenarios:
- First, disability must be an integral part of all emergency and humanitarian response before and after a crisis hits, through sustainable development programs.
- Second, there is an urgent need for disability to be taken into consideration throughout all phases of humanitarian assistance. All humanitarian actors should ensure that emergency preparedness, response and recovery programs are inclusive, rights-based and respond to the needs of persons with disabilities.
- Third and lastly, the principles in the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities should underpin all humanitarian efforts and international protection frameworks, particularly Article 11 – calling on governments to develop National Action Plans or Policies, which identify strategic actions, priorities and resources, and determine responsibilities and timeframes at the national level.
At a gala dinner, HRH Prince Mired Bin Ra’ad Al Hussein of Jordan praised Her Highness and Ali Bin Ali for taking “bold steps” with their formation of the One Billion Strong organization, and reaffirmed bi-lateral cooperation on elevating disability issues. Rima Salah, deputy executive director of UNICEF, lauded the state of Qatar for signing and ratifying the CRPD and the Anti-Personnel Mine Ban Convention.
Ali Bin Ali called on the forum’s attendees to sign the Shafallah Declaration on Crisis, Conflict and Disability. By endorsing this declaration, he explained, “We will be encouraging adoption by the global community of the UN-CRPD, and we will be establishing a concrete framework through which to begin addressing the rights and conditions of people with disabilities. Through ratification of the UN-CRPD—specifically resolutions that support Article 11—we will lift the status of the one billion persons living with disabilities, of which 800 million live in poverty, 6.5 million of them being refugees or displaced.”
Chet Cooper, editor-in-chief of ABILITY Magazine, sat down with the chairman of the Shafallah Center after his press conference to get more specifics on the new initiative.