The Guest Blog

Guest Blog post by David Evangelista, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director.

For an issue that has gained such strong visibility, too many remain invisible.

We have seen stark images through the airwaves. Long lines of refugees streaming through the countryside. They carry what they can, the heaviest of which is the uncertainty and the burden of fleeing a home choked in conflict, war and danger. From Goma to Aleppo, and from Sana’a to Bangui and beyond, the world is in the midst of the largest human migration in modern history.

In Europe, the crisis has become particularly acute – and politicised. As migrants and refugees, especially women and children, board inadequate boats to make perilous sea crossings, or journey huge distances overland to reach the relative safety of the European Union, nations throughout the region are witnessing a changing national dialogue, a stretching of national budgets, and a growing uncertainty of what the future holds.

These individuals, called ‘refugees’ and ‘migrants’ and ‘asylum seekers’, face entrenched discrimination from their adopted countries, stigmatisation runs high, and they often find themselves on the margins of society and politics alike.

And, for a moment, consider this: you are not only an individual fleeing their home due to violence, war, conflict, and poverty – but you must also contend with the array of challenges facing an estimated 200 million people globally. This is the world of individuals with intellectual disabilities who are among the refugee population, a forgotten population subset that exist in the shadows of one of the biggest crises facing modern day Europe.

Among the 21.5 million refugees around the world, it is estimated that a minimum of a half a million have an intellectual disability – a most modest figure given the very low reporting on disability figures. It is likely that this statistic is under-reported, but a lack of frontline resources to deal effectively with the needs of this population means the true figure is difficult to capture.

But what is not in doubt is that this population faces marginalization and isolation on a different scale to most others. They are afforded no self-determination, the lowest forms of community participation, and one of the highest rates of physical, sexual and emotional abuse of any population subset on earth. When placed within a migrant/refugee setting, this population’s fate becomes even more urgent. Frightening, even.

Persons with disabilities have difficulty accessing humanitarian assistance due to a variety of societal, environmental and communication barriers. This increases their protection risks, including violence, abuse and exploitation. There is growing evidence that rates of violence may be 4-10 times greater among persons with disabilities than their non-disabled peers. Women, children and older persons with disabilities are particularly vulnerable to discrimination, exploitation and violence, including gender-based violence, and they may have difficulty accessing support and services that could reduce their risk and vulnerability. Psychosocial support is low if non-existent in most settings, compounding the wounds (both physical and emotional) inflicted from this migration.

This is an issue that can remain invisible no longer.

This epidemic requires immediate, and sustained, attention from the international community. With the UN Sustainable Development Goals bringing inclusive programming to the forefront of international development, this is a time that cannot escape governments, civil society and communities alike. Real lives depends on it.

Sensitization to the key issues facing this population is a critical first step to addressing this plight. To this end, Special Olympics, together with Human Rights Watch, conducted a formal briefing at the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees on 4 November 2016 to address the plight facing individuals with intellectual disabilities as part of the global refugee population. Special Olympics International Board member Nils Kastberg, Special Olympics Europe Eurasia President and Managing Director David Evangelista, and Human Rights Watch Disability Director Shantha Rau Barriga, joined executive officials from the UNHCR to begin a campaign of heightened sensitization to ensure this population is integrated into all humanitarian and development initiatives.

“We must do more to address the marginalization and imminent dangers that face individuals with intellectual disabilities within the global migrant/refugee populations. The time is now,” said Kelly Clements, Deputy High Commissioner of the UNHCR as part of her opening remarks.

Nils Kastberg, a veteran international development expert and former UNICEF Regional Director, added: “This population faces some of the most urgent needs of any group, especially in humanitarian settings. Sensitizing and training the international community to prioritize this group, to create additional structures of support- simple measures- could have a profound positive effect.”

Shantha Rau Barriga, a global expert on disability and Disability Director for Human Rights Watch, returned from a field visit to Greece, where she visited a series of reception centers, migrant camps, etc. and had the opportunity to speak directly to children with intellectual disabilities and their families: “Access to essential services is a major challenge for asylum seekers and refugees with disabilities. This is not only a humanitarian issue, it’s a human rights issue.”

Special Olympics, together with development and civil society partners, is committed to addressing the needs of individuals with intellectual disabilities within the refugee population worldwide. Through increased collaboration, sensitization, and action the international community can make significant, and cost effective, strides to ensuring the safety, protection and social integration of this often isolated group as part of the world’s focus on solving the largest mass exodus of humans in memory.

The presentation and panel discussion were the opening of a wider dialogue between Special Olympics and UNHCR on their shared commitment to serve the refugee population and the people with intellectual disabilities within this community.

Making the invisible visible is a pivotal part of righting the many wrongs that have created the current situation, and many grass-roots stakeholders are ready to do their part. Special Olympics is one among many and we stand ready to act on this most urgent of issues.

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