Intersectionality between migrants and people with disabilities

8 March, 2021

What does being a migrant with disabilities entail?

Migrants and asylum seekers with disabilities often encounter and experience difficulties associated with the social, environmental and political barriers societies create and impose onto them. This adds up to the already existing challenges any migrant faces within the contemporary landscape. For instance, migrants with physical or intellectual disabilities often find themselves dealing with the stigma surrounding disability. Further, they may encounter additional social barriers, and experience inaccessibility or, at least, a higher difficulty to access services. This results in increasing risks of violence and discrimination towards them.

The concept of intersectionality can help to better understand the challenges and constraints those individuals experience at different levels and intensities. The combined effects of disability, citizenship status and ethnicity on the experiences of migrants with disabilities are well explained in Trotter’s observation: “being a migrant affects the experience of being disabled but being disabled also alters the experience of migration”. It is the intersection of these experiences, along with the social, environmental, and political barriers, which bring issues of human rights and citizenship into sharp focus.

Research shows that, when arriving in Europe, migrants with disabilities are not adequately supported nor provided with appropriate care. The invisibility of migrants with disabilities in policy, practice, and research highlights the silences and gaps in our knowledge of this group. Migration policies often imply a ‘one-size-fits-all’ approach, which neglects the diversity characterizing this broad group of individuals with specific needs, stories and rights.

The limited representation of migrants and refugees with disabilities within policy and research originates from two aspects. On the one hand, migrants are neglected within data and policies on disability. On the other hand, people with disabilities are not sufficiently represented within migration data and debates.

Concerning the first issue, as pointed out by Andersen and Mannan’s study, displaced people are not mentioned at all in the United Nations Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disability (UNCRPD). Further, compared to categorizations such as age and gender, ethnic minorities are less commonly listed. The World Report on Disability, published by the World Health Organization and the World Bank in 2011, refers to migrants only once, as support workers and caregivers of people with disabilities, but it does not consider them as potential individuals in need of support and access to services.

Concerning the second point, the New Pact on Migration and Asylum also fails to consider the diversity of migrants and asylum seekers with disabilities. The plan, for example, does not expressly commit itself to offer dedicated accommodation and targeted assistance for individuals with disabilities. In addition, the document utilises an obsolete vocabulary to address disability by using terms as “vulnerable” and “persons with mental disorder”. This way of portraying disability relies on an outdated medical approach, which does not take into account the social and political meanings associated with disability. The biomedical model leads to the idea that all the difficulties experienced by people with disabilities are the result of their physical or mental limitations. This understanding of disability has been criticized due to its straightforward and old-fashioned correlation between disability and an individual’s intrinsic physical or mental condition.

The reintroduction of a mere medical understanding of disability does not comply with the UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) nor with international standards. In this regard, disability is to be defined as the result of specific, and power-infused, ways of normalizing and (ab)normalizing bodies. This reflects the mechanisms through which medical, political and social practices turn individuals into (dis)abled subjects. Defining these political and social dynamics within specific environments can help to identify the contextual challenges people with disabilities have to face daily.

What is to be done?

There are several aspects that need to be addressed, both at the national and European level, to embed the rights of migrants and refugees with disabilities within the current policy landscape. This part of the population, often neglected and forgotten, deserves to be listened to, included and supported. Individuals with disabilities, coming from every background, must be heard and it is every society’s responsibility to guarantee that their agency is assured.

First of all, every person has different needs, stories and prospects for the future, and the data needs to be able to capture and represent this diversity. According to the European Union Agency for Fundamental Rights (FRA), very little information is available on the situation of newly arriving migrants and refugees with disabilities in the EU, resulting in anecdotal data and individual reports. There is the need for formal procedures, trained staff and further support to identify migrants and refugees with disabilities, collect sufficient and systematic data on them, and make sure that this information reaches policy makers. Identification and representation of migrants with disabilities within data is important for adjusting policies, services and environments to everyone’s needs.

Then, it is essential to reframe the narratives surrounding migration and disability. Disability is a fluid concept, and it cannot be used as an unconditional term to create a clear distinction between the so-called ‘dis-abled and able bodies’. Associating disability exclusively with a medical condition is nowadays a risk and, even, a mistake. Disability is proved to be linked to the social and environmental norms which define the world that we live in. These norms can foster the stigmatization and exclusion of people with disabilities, as they are exclusively dictated by the needs of people without disabilities.

These structural and systemic barriers prevent migrants and refugees with disabilities from realising their right to participate in society. Thus, it is extremely important for policy documents, such as the New Pact on Migration and Asylum, to raise awareness on the language surrounding migration and disability to make sure that discrimination is not perpetuated through language. This can be done, for example, through the consultation with people with disabilities and experts who can help reframe the discourse, and support policy makers to implement inclusive documents along with the right wording around migration and disability.

Lastly, with growing global attention to the issues associated with intersectionality, it is important to further investigate the relationship between disability and migration in future international dialogue. As Burns claims: “the intersection of migration process and migrant status plus health and/or disability status restriction/denial of entitlement and access to healthcare systems in Europe have several implications for our understanding of disability and migration”. There is the urgent need to maintain an open-minded approach towards these forms of intersectionality in order to keep the conversation running and make sure that migrants with disabilities are represented and actively included in the European policy landscape. As the international disability community often highlights: “there is nothing about us without us”. In other words, if we want an equal Europe for everyone, it is crucial to guarantee substantive and meaningful dialogue with people with disabilities during the implementation of migration policies.

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