War on Disability–Refugees Face Unique Challenges

Refugee camp, rows and rows of tents on red soil

Since the beginning of the war in Syria, thousands of refugees with disabilities have tried to escape to Europe, facing scarcity, death, and war, without the proper assistance and protection to meet their basic needs.

Reports show that approximately 30% of crisis migrants from Syria have special needs due to physical, sensory, or intellectual impairment, chronic disease, or injury.

The Asylum Procedures Directive requires that Member States of the EU protect vulnerable groups that include minors, refugees with disabilities, the LGBT community, and pregnant women. This is also in accordance with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities.

However, in the case of refugees with disabilities, they are being overlooked and are falling through the cracks, according to Human Rights Watch researcher Emina Cerimovic.

This occurs both as refugees flee and as they arrive in and work to integrate into a new society. It is not easy for anyone to escape war and leave their country, but individuals with disabilities face unique challenges.

Cerimovic also pointed out that even making the decision to flee is a major difficulty for people with certain types of disabilities, as some may not recognize the hazards they face.

“The first struggle is just being able to flee; the second is, you might have intellectual disabilities and not understand the danger,” she said. “I interviewed a 24-year-old man I met in Greece. He is deaf and back in Aleppo, in Syria, just because he’s deaf, he could not hear raids; he could not hear air strikes.”

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Cerimovic reported that this young man’s parents would not let him go out, confining and isolating him for three years before he was able to flee. They feared his deafness would prevent him from seeking shelter in the case of an attack.

This is why the role of family members can be crucial. In some cases, families decide to stay together and face the cruelties of war to avoid leaving someone behind. Similarly, Cerimovic said that in all her time in refugee camps, she has never met a person with a disability who was not accompanied and assisted by relatives.

“Although a disability may seem like a hindrance to escaping a conflict zone, for others it is in fact the reason to flee,” said Gesa Müller from Lebenshilfe Hamburg in Germany who provides lifestyle support for individuals with disabilities.

This was the case for 19-year-old Karan, a Syrian teen who has severe intellectual and physical disabilities. His mother decided to flee Aleppo when lack of access to medical care became a grave concern.

“Because of bombs, deaths and weapons, my son’s condition became worse. He started having crises, and it affected us very much,” she said. “He used to take medications, but now there is nothing.”

Karan’s mother explained that because they had to cross rough, uneven terrain without any mobility aids, the journey was slow and difficult. “The journey was really so tough for my son. I did this journey for my son. If it was not for him, I could have stayed back,” she said.

For those who make the decision to flee, one of the most common routes to enter Europe is by land from Syria through Jordan and into Turkey, where they travel by sea into Greece.

Because this sea crossing is typically done on overfilled dinghy boats, any personal items seen as unnecessary, including wheelchairs, are generally not permitted. Other devices, such as hearing aids, are likely to be damaged.

Once they arrive in Greece, refugees stay in camps sometimes for just a night, but in other instances, bottlenecks and changing laws force them to stay in one place for months at a time. However, many of the camps are provisional and as such, have not been equipped to accommodate individuals with special needs.

According to Cerimovic and her team, individuals with mobility issues may have difficulty meeting basic necessities, such as gaining access to shelter and water. This is because these facilities are often built far away from each other, on higher ground and uneven terrain.

Sanitation accommodations are generally not wheelchair accessible; she described stories of individuals descending from their wheelchairs and crawling across unhygienic floors just to get to the bathroom.

A 28-year-old Syrian refugee, who was physically wounded and in a wheelchair after a rocket struck his home in Damascus, described his experience in an immigration detention center in Hungary on the Serbian border.

“Every two or three days all the others are taken out to the courtyard to get some fresh air, for 15 or 20 minutes. I haven’t been out for 42 days because of the stairs,” he said.

There is very little to do in the camps, so those who are unable to leave face boredom and sometimes feelings of uselessness. The poor conditions in the camps and lack of psychosocial support can lead to mental health issues, in which trauma may be compounded.

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“While working in the camps I have observed emotional, mental and social problems including depression, anxiety, PTSD, hyper vigilance, anger, despair and social withdrawal,” explained Michelle J. Wong, director of World Media Advocacy.

He explained that confinement can cause a loss of the will to live, lack of sleep and appetite, drastic weight loss and a tormented mind, due to feeling out of contact with the outside world. Cerimovic reported meeting people who had attempted suicide because of the conditions in the camps. According to psychologist Amer Omar of the Woman and Health Alliance International, providing crisis migrants with some counseling services is not enough because in order for a person to fight against depression, s/he needs to change his/her environment and have access to food and shelter.

Although a few NGOs such as World Media Advocacy, Save the Children, and Doctors Without Borders do enter the camps to identify and assist individuals with special needs, there are not enough resources to go around. People with disabilities that are not visually identifiable tend to go unnoticed and unaided.

Most refugees in the Greek camps eventually manage to move on, and many aim to head to Germany or Scandinavian countries. Those areas are known to have some of the best social support systems for asylum seekers in Europe, although conditions even there may be far from ideal.

Müller outlined some of the main struggles a refugee with disabilities confronts once arriving in Germany. Again there is a problem with identification in reception centers and camps, since special needs are not a topic in the entrance interviews.

Identification is left to social workers or volunteers, despite a lack of intersectional training. Their experience is either in working with people with disabilities or with refugees but not both.

Müller said most individuals with disabilities self-identify or have family members who contact social workers, but because of cultural differences and stigmatization, many fail to reach out.

In Germany, approximately 10 percent of citizens receive benefits for a severe disability, in contrast to 5 percent of people with a migration background. This shows that individuals with severe disabilities and a migration history are significantly less likely to be identified.

Completing the paperwork for an application for asylum, requesting an identification card, finding a physician and gaining access to rehabilitation services or medical devices is a discouraging process that can take months or even years.

The experience of Mohammed Reda is just one of many examples. Reda is unable to walk due to injuries from an airstrike in Syria, and, after being in Germany for eight months, he still had not been issued
a wheelchair.

He reported he had not been outside his apartment in over a month, since there is no one who is willing to carry him. Although he was able to reach Germany, he has not been able to begin his new life due to inefficiencies in the bureaucracy.

Stories such as this point to the fact that the process of identifying and aiding refugees with disabilities should begin sooner upon their arrival and should be expedited.

For those who make it through the identification process, there are still struggles ahead. For example, in Germany’s biggest cities, Berlin and Hamburg, it is extremely difficult to find barrier-free living; while others may need to travel hundreds of miles to attend language classes that are specific to their needs. This is required in order to receive financial support from the State and is a first step toward assimilation and integration.

However, Müller added that it ultimately might be easier for a refugee with a disability to integrate, because there is little fear of those with disabilities or injuries, the elderly and children. This sentiment was echoed by Nujeen Mustafa, a young woman with cerebral palsy who, at the age of 16, fled from Syria to Germany.

As she described the change in attitudes of Europeans towards refugees after the 2015 terrorist attacks in Paris, she said, “But generally the Germans were still open and friendly, as they had been ever since we arrived. Maybe it’s easier for me being in a wheelchair as I look benign.”

Although it may have been comparatively simple for Mustafa to find a place in German society, things were much harder for her along the way.

When she and her family were still in their Aleppo apartment, she was unable to navigate down the stairs to the relative safety of the basement, so they all stayed on the fifth floor as the building shook during the raids.

She recalled feeling like a burden to her family numerous times, such as when she and her sister hid in a bathroom during a regime bombing against the Free Syrian Army in Manbij.

“We were in that bathroom for four hours. If we were all going to die, I wanted it to be me,” she said. “The rest of my family each had a definite use, but I couldn’t see I had a use for anybody.”

Eventually, the younger members of Mustafa’s family were able to flee and, despite the challenges faced along the way, she and her sister reached Germany, where she was immediately impressed by the opportunities available to her.

“At the station we were amazed by the lifts and everything designed to make life easier for disabled people. As [my sister] says, ‘everything is different in Germany,’” she stated.

Although according to Cerimovic and Müller, there is still much to be done to improve the lives of refugees with disabilities in Germany and other European countries. Simply being allowed to reside in a place with this type of infrastructure is a life-changing opportunity for many.

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Mustafa explained, “The first day I ever went to school, I was just one month shy of my 17th birthday. I was nervous but also happy, for finally I could say I have done something normal in my life.”

Her experiences in school have also given her a new hope for the future. “The point of this school is to train us to be as independent as possible, and when we finish here at 18, we do training in what they call vocational work. We have no facilities like this in Syria, and I know I am very lucky,” she said. “Even some people in Germany think special schools like this are too costly and that disabled people should go to school with everyone else. Maybe one day I will.”

A similar optimism is held by Anas al-Hakim, a 25-year-old Syrian who was paralyzed as a teenager during a surgery related to craniofacial fibrous dysplasia.

Al-Hakim arrived in Germany in 2014 to pursue higher education. He states, “Living in Germany is like a dream. I can go wherever I want with the transportation system, and there are wheelchair accessible ramps in most buildings.”

According to the World Health Organization, physical barriers to basic mobility often prevent individuals from fully participating in society.

This was true for al-Hakim, as he explained, “I prefer everything in Berlin to Damascus. My family is there, but here I can move freely with my wheelchair. It comes down to the freedom of movement.”

When talking about living in Damascus with special needs, he put it simply: “You don’t see someone with a disability very often. It’s strange even for [Syrians] to see someone in a wheelchair. They don’t mean to stare or look, but they tend to.”

This perception was shared by Mustafa who has said, “I didn’t confront my disability in Syria because I didn’t go out, and I avoided people looking at me. The teachers here think I need to be realistic and accept how I am and get on with it, learn to eat by myself and move my chair, not keep talking about being an astronaut or walking.”

In both of these instances, life in Germany has afforded individuals with mobility issues a chance at a life that never would have been possible in Syria.

This is certainly the case for Fatima Albakour, who was just 7-months-old when shelling left her with burns over 60% of her body. A physician at the hospital in Idlib, Syria suggested giving her a lethal injection because her injuries were so severe they would result in the lifelong inability to walk or talk.

However, Dr. Marita Eisenmann-Klein helped bring Albakour and her family to Germany for surgery. Although Albakour is still in pain and has a long road to recovery in front of her, doctors believe the first operation was a success, and there is now a team in place to help her as she prepares for her new life.

It is clear that fleeing a conflict-affected region is difficult for anyone, and individuals with disabilities face particular challenges during flight and resettlement. Many stories also show that individuals with disabilities who are able to escape to a country like Germany are afforded chances at a life that may never have been possible.

Despite this improved quality of life, governments and programs continue to overlook and underserve refugees with disabilities.

Since 2015, Greece has received more than €125 million in refugee aide and an additional €370 million has been raised for humanitarian agencies; however, Cerimovic said that refugees with disabilities are still not getting the services they need. Furthermore, the UK declared in February 2017 that their flagship program to resettle the most vulnerable victims from the Middle East and North Africa has been put to a halt. Due to a lack of suitable infrastructure and social support, children with disabilities will be forced to remain in refugee camps.

A significant number of crisis migrants with disabilities are seeking identification and asylum, and we have an ethical obligation to improve the refugee processing system to ensure all claims are considered seriously and efficiently. Thus, it is more pertinent now than ever before that governments, aide organizations and individuals come together to assist refugees with disabilities during flight, in the camps, and as they seek to build their lives in a new society.

by Kelsey D. White, PhD
photos by Michelle J. Wong

Kelsey D. White, PhD is a German instructor at the University of California in Santa Barbara. Her current research focuses on the documentation of stories of crisis migrants with disabilities, injuries, or chronic illnesses, particularly as they settle in Western countries.

Michelle J. Wong is a photographer, journalist, writer, and founder of the non-profit organization World Media Advocacy. The goal of his recent work is to increase awareness for the needs of individuals with disabilities, to fight for their rights, and to help alleviate the devastation of individuals fleeing from conflict-affected areas.

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