Debate between the panellists and the public at the EESC on the situation of refugees and migrants with disabilities.

Refugees and migrants with disabilities: a double exclusion and discrimination

ADULT EDUCATION & REFUGEES. Thousands of refugees and migrants living in Europe are with disabilities, and their situation is often not very well known. After a study visit in Greece, the European Economic and Social Committee (EESC) organised a public hearing on ‘The situation of refugees and migrants with disabilities’ on the 14th of February in Brussels.

No data on the exact number of refugees and migrants with disabilities living in Europe is known. Facing a double exclusion and discrimination, they have the exact same basic needs than other migrants, but have in addition special needs that should to be addressed. The current challenge is to provide them with adequate reception conditions and access to proper treatment.

The European legislative framework: what has been done so far?

A European legislative framework already exists to improve accessibility. Emanuel Darmanin, from the Ministry for the Family and Social Solidarity of the Maltese Presidency, explained that the EU prohibits any discrimination based on disability, according to the Article 21 of the Charter of fundamental rights of the EU. The EU also “recognises […] the right of persons with disabilities to benefit from measures designed to ensure their […] integration […]”, according to the Article 26 of the Charter of fundamental rights of the EU.

More specifically, the Deputy Head of Unit for Asylum, Stephen Ryan, from the Directorate-General “Migration and Home Affairs” in European Commission, pointed out that the Reception Conditions Directive provides common standards of conditions of living of asylum applicants, and that the Asylum Procedures Directive aims to guarantee the access to a fair and efficient asylum procedure. In that framework, the Member States must ensure that special needs are addressed.

Furthermore, the European Asylum Support Office (EASO) works also on this specific issue. It published in 2016 a guidance on reception conditions with one chapter on special needs that gives practical advices to the Member States on how to identify, assess and response to these needs.

An emergency situation for migrants and refugees with disabilities

There is a huge contrast between this legislative framework and the reality. Some initiatives are locally developed by individuals, NGOs, civil society and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to welcome migrants and refugees with disabilities. They provide practical assistance and more adequate reception conditions as for instance in the Kara Tepe camp in Lesbos (Greece) where they put toilets and showers for disabled people.

Shantha Barriga, from the Disability Section of the Human Rights Watch, indicated that most of them have no access to special needs and psychological support, as well as no equal access to services.

Michele Levoy, from the Platform for International Cooperation on Undocumented Migrants, highlighted that the situation is even worse for the ones that are undocumented.

Make them visible and act!

In order to tackle this situation, Shantha Barriga and Polyxeni Passa (UNHCR) claimed that it is firstly crucial to identify people with disabilities within the registration process, and to make them visible. A proper identification with official data will allow them to benefit of existing schemes. Migrants and refugees with disabilities should also be more informed that they have rights according to their special needs.

“Then, according to the identified needs, we need compulsory provisions for the reception of these people [and] compulsory programmes and actions in cooperation with local authorities”, said Ioannis Vardakastanis (EESC). Actions should also be implemented to integrate them into society and to empower them.

At the local level, Michele Levoy explained that more cooperation between local authorities, trade union and civil society is needed.

At the European level, much more could be done. Catherine Naughton, from the European Disability Forum, underlined that firstly, the existing legal framework should be fully implemented as it. The participants also stresses that a common approach should be implemented and the different EU agendas on social policies (migration, disability, etc.) should be aligned.

Stephen Ryan explained that the European Commission proposed a greater degree of harmonization across the Member States and more specifically to make the Asylum Procedure Directives obligatory. He also highlighted that resettlement from third countries to the EU and relocation within the EU should prioritize vulnerable persons, whose people with disabilities.

“It is [however] not enough to adopt a joint approach in Europe. We need to allocate funding and to ensure that European Social Funds are available”, said Irene Petraitiene from the EESC Permanent Study Group on Disability Rights.

Catherine Naughton and Stephen Ryan also underlined that the EASO should also be given more responsibility and resources in order to ensure and monitor the proper treatment of migrants and refugees with disabilities.

EAEA is working on the integration of people with disabilities through the AEMA project by contributing to equal access to adult education for people with disabilities. Visit the AEMA portal to know more about it!

Text: Clémence GarnierPhotos: Clémence Garnier

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