Disability and displacement

People living with disabilities are among the most vulnerable and socially excluded of all displaced people.

They may be hidden away, and not identified in data collection or included in needs assessments by humanitarian agencies. As a result, they are excluded from or unable to access most aid programs because of physical and social barriers, including negative attitudes.

They rarely have the opportunity to engage meaningfully in community decisions and are rarely consulted directly on their own needs — with agencies frequently deferring to community leaders, family members or caregivers. People with disabilities can be more isolated following their displacement than when they were in their home communities.

The UNHCR has incorporated the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities into it's operations since it came into force in 1998. A key resource is the Working with People with Disabilities in Forced Displacement. (UNHCR, 2011)

Disability Inclusion: Policy to Practice (Women's Refugee Commission, 2013) The report includes:

  • Key protection concerns of persons with disabilities
  • Implementation of UNHCR Guidance on Disability
  • Institutionalizing disability inclusion across UNHCR operations

Disability in detention.

Liberty is a fundamental human right. Depriving someone of their liberty carries with it a serious responsibility to ensure that the conditions of detention do not undermine the fundamental human dignity of the person who is detained. This includes people living with disability.

"We met a man who had been moved to a particular part of the facility and had been allocated an upper bunk. This man had epilepsy and expressed concern to Commission staff about his safety sleeping on the top bunk. We raised this issue with the detention authorities and a breakdown in communication between medical and detention staff was cleared up quickly and a solution found." ~ Human Rights in Closed Environments speech here from Human Rights & Equal Opportunity Commission, Australia.

Lateline, Australia ran a program 21.11.12 that highlighted disability in detention as it impacts children with cerebral palsy.

Obtained under the Freedom of Information Act, and published 9.11.11, this is the first publicaly available version of the 2009 contract that the Department of Immigration & Citizenship (DIAC) has with British multinational Serco to provide detention "services", which includes upholding all of Australia's laws (eg Anti discrimination, Bill to consolidate state laws nationally here) and international laws (eg Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability, Australia ratified this in 2008) which both protect people living with disability.

A Sennate Committee Inquiry report 7.12.12 on Migration Amendment (Health Care for Asylum Seekers) Bill 2012 recommended to parliament that a disability advocate be added to the immigration health advisory group (IHAG) that raises health implications for detained asylum seekers to the government. 


Mirza, M. (2012). Occupational upheaval during resettlement and migration: Findings of global ethnography with refugees with disabilities. OTJR: Occupation, Participation and Health, 32 (1), 6-14.

Mirza, M. & Heinemann, A.W. (2012). Service needs and service gaps among refugees with disabilities resettled in the United States. Disability and Rehabilitation, vol. 34, no. 7, 2012, pp. 542-552.

Mirza, M. & Hammel, J. (2011). Crossing borders, Pushing boundaries: Disabled refugees’ experiences of community and community participation in the US. Research in Social Science & Disability, Special Issue: Disability and Community, 6, 157-186.

Mirza, M. (2011). Disability and humanitarianism in refugee camps: The case for a traveling supranational disability praxis. Third World Quarterly, Special Issue: Disability in the Global South, 32 (8), 1527-1536.

Mirza, M. (2011). Unmet needs and diminished opportunities; disability, displacement, and humanitarian healthcare. New Issues in Refugee Research. UNHCR Policy Development and Evaluation Service. 

In the news

"Ireland criticised over failure to adopt asylum legislation", disability rights also highlighted in Ireland, 6.12.12

"Labour stops short on migration and disability reform", disability rights gained and lost highlighted in Australia, 4.12.12

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