To ‘promote, protect and ensure’: overcoming obstacles to identifying disability in forced migration

Peer-reviewed article
(2015 Mar) Journal of Refugee Studies, 28 38-68


Smith-Khan L, Crock M, Saul B, McCallum R


Every year, millions of people are forcibly displaced as a result of natural or human-made disasters. Although a significant proportion are persons living with a disability, remarkably little is known about the incidence and type of disabilities they experience. To design services that best respect rights and address needs, effective procedures must be devised to identify persons with disabilities in situations of displacement. This article draws on initial findings from research funded by Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs, conducted with the cooperation of the United Nations High Commission for Refugees in four countries: Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan and Uganda. It examines methods used by UNHCR and its partners for identifying disability in populations of displaced persons. The authors present a tool for the identification of disabilities designed to overcome some of the challenges observed. They argue that to reflect the values enshrined in the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities, identification tools should not focus simply on impairment, using a medical approach or disability labelling. Rather, questions should be asked about functionality and a person’s assistance needs. Proper identification of disability would go some way to ensuring equal access to appropriate assistance and protection for all refugees.