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A Step in the Right Direction: New Commitments to Disability Inclusion in Refugee Settings

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Last year in Lebanon, my colleague Emma met 16-year-old Zeinah*. Zeinah, who had recently arrived as a refugee from Syria, had been shot in the back while shielding her 3-month-old baby as they were fleeing the city of Homs, leaving her unable to walk and wheelchair dependent.

Of the world's 51.2 million people displaced by conflict and persecution, an astonishing 7.7 million are persons with disabilities. While many of their disabilities are longstanding, many are new, like Zeinah's, the result of war-related violence.

Despite progress, persons with disabilities remain among the most hidden and neglected of all displaced people. They are excluded from or unable to access most aid programs because of physical and social barriers or because of negative attitudes and biases. They are often not identified when aid agencies and organizations collect data and assess needs during and after a humanitarian disaster. They are more likely to be forgotten when health and support services are provided.

Being displaced can exacerbate refugees with disabilities' isolation. This increases their vulnerability to a variety of protection concerns -- such as violence, abuse and exploitation -- particularly for women and children. Indeed, persons with disabilities are three times more likely to be victims of rape and other physical and sexual abuse.

What tends to be overlooked, however, are their tremendous skills and capacity. As the UN High Commissioner for Refugees reminds us, "Refugees with disabilities possess valuable skills, knowledge and experience, and they wish and deserve to be given the opportunities to use them."

The Women's Refugee Commission has been raising awareness about the concerns of refugees with disabilities since 2008. We have conducted research, capacity development and advocacy to promote disability-inclusive policy and practice. Over the last two years, we have provided technical support and training to the UN refugee agency's (UNHCR's) country operations and partners in eight countries, reaching hundreds of humanitarian actors and refugees with disabilities.

Today in Geneva we launched a groundbreaking report, Disability Inclusion: Translating Policy into Practice in Humanitarian Action, which outlines obstacles, as well as promising field practices for maximizing the inclusion of displaced persons with disabilities. Based largely on what we found from discussions with more than 700 refugees, many of them with disabilities, the report provides concrete suggestions for actors across the humanitarian field, including humanitarian organizations, donor governments, the UN refugee agency and disabled persons' organizations.

Since the Women's Refugee Commission first raised concerns in 2008 about access and inclusion for persons with disabilities in its groundbreaking report Disabilities among Refugee and Conflict-Affected Populations, UNHCR has committed to ensuring that the rights of persons with disabilities are met without discrimination. The agency has started a process to make programs more inclusive and accessible, including its Conclusion on Refugees with Disabilities (2010) and guidance for country operations and partners on Working with Persons with Disabilities in Forced Displacement (2011).

We are thrilled that at the launch of our report today, UNHCR and the government of Finland announced their increased commitment to disability inclusion. UNHCR will recruit a professional to provide technical support and will develop training materials for use across the entire agency. The government of Finland has committed to fund this work for the next three years.

These commitments are a major step toward improving the lives of displaced persons with disabilities around the globe and to ensuring they are able to exercise their rights and access services in all humanitarian programs.

Emma met Zeinah again last month. Emma reported that though her situation remains difficult, Zeinah has worked closely with her UNHCR case manager, and has exhibited incredible strength and resilience. She is in good health, is parenting her baby and is making decisions on how to best move forward with her future. Zeinah is a wonderful example of how access to services can improve the lives of displaced people with disabilities.

*Name changed to protect identity