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.”
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.
“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
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.