As many as 20% of forcibly displaced people worldwide are people with disabilities. For displaced people who are refugees, being outside their home country can cause challenges when trying to access the right services. Language barriers, for example, can create delays. The singularity of the term ‘disability’ does not represent the variety and complexity of possible impairments. Some refugees might require prescribed glasses; others may need professional therapy. This is why there are much greater challenges for refugee children with disabilities. Not only are they more vulnerable than adults, but it can be difficult for children to understand and communicate their needs given their immaturity.
“Need” is the key word to this article. I will discuss refugee youth experiences in relation to how fundamental human needs are affected. It is crucial that these needs, ranging from safety to human connection to self-actualisation, begin to develop in childhood. Good monitoring is important for this. A child born into a high-income, peaceful country is more likely to have sustained access to social services. Whereas an unaccompanied child fleeing a volatile country will lack the support of parents, teachers, or medical professionals. Children also need to feel understood and listened to. Children’s rights are protected by international law and young people are important contributors to the wellbeing of communities. When children face discrimination, it undermines their self-belief and the recognition that their voices have power.
Exclusion in Education Spaces
School is undeniably the formative space where refugee children can address their fundamental human needs. As the United Nations identifies in Sustainable Development Goal four, ‘education is a lifeline for children in crises’. All children learn vital, lifelong skills ranging from literacy to core psychosocial development.
School provides stability for many children who have undergone traumatic levels of disruption. Well-trained teachers can also identify special needs or child protection risks from building a relationship with their pupils. This is important because refugee children, especially those who are unaccompanied, can be exposed to risks of human rights violations. Working under the legal age, facing domestic violence, and living in dangerous levels of poverty, are all common experiences. Teachers have an important role in potentially recognising signs of human trafficking, abuse, or sexual exploitation. Whilst these issues are beyond the capacity of an educator, teachers can begin the process of safeguarding and refer a pupil to child protection services.
However, around the world, education systems are often not functional let alone equitable for refugees with disabilities. Around half of the ten million school-age refugee children around the world are not in school. The picture becomes more concerning for sustained education access; the enrolment rates for secondary school and higher education are significantly lower than primary school. In the 2020-2021 academic year, only 37% of secondary school-age refugee children were enrolled. These figures alone indicate a range of safeguarding issues; many young people are exploited for labour to provide for their families or marry early. With a lot of refugee children living without identification documents like a birth certificate, it is impossible for these statistics to accurately reflect the complete reality of refugees’ barriers to education.
Exacerbating these issues, the COVID-19 pandemic has setback countless children’s learning journeys because of school closures. Access to technology was a major factor in how successfully children could access remote learning. The digital divide can become discriminatory in terms of disabled children’s access to specialist services. For example, if deaf or visually impaired children are not given suitable technology to participate, a school is not taking equitable measures to educate fairly. Here we reach the crux of the issue: 83% refugees displaced abroad are hosted in low and middle-income countries.
Lack of funding for schools in many lower income countries can mean that ratios of students to teachers are too high for children to receive fair levels of attention. For refugee children who may have experienced trauma or separation from their families, a new school is a challenging adjustment. According to one 2023 article, 22% refugee children are reported to have anxiety. This disability could cause behavioural issues because of the pressures of an overcrowded classroom environment. Some children might need adjustments such as a quiet space for rest breaks or cognitive behavioural therapy. Focused teachers are essential to assess these circumstances. Consequently, financial deficits can exacerbate disabled refugee children’s sense of exclusion if facilities are insufficient. For example, good data systems are needed to assess children for educational needs and good sanitation is needed for children with various physical impairments. Adjustments sometimes come with cost which an alarming number of schools cannot meet.
The economic status of host countries therefore has a significant impact on the opportunities disabled refugee children can access at school. Without a suitable level of accessible measures in place, these young people’s fundamental needs are likely to be compromised. Particularly, the needs of self-actualisation and identity will be inhibited if children are not empowered to believe in their value to the wider community. This will affect their motivation to engage in higher education and pursue careers where they are capable of excelling.
Community-Based Inclusion Approaches
On the other hand, numerous refugee children with disabilities have the support to enjoy their education and feel motivated to reach their individual potential. Mainstream schooling can create a diverse environment where children learn to appreciate difference, often reducing social stigma around disabilities. The 2022 UNHCR Refugee Education Report features the case study of Magartu, a 17-year-old Ethiopian refugee. She has been visually impaired since a young age and reportedly found confidence in a mainstream school through socialising and competing with her peers. Magartu has been awarded a UNHCR scholarship which allows her to attend the Kibos Special School in Western Kenya. She aims to become a lawyer. When policy-makers consider whether mainstream or special schools are more effective, it is important to listen to these young people to understand where they feel most safe and incentivised.
This UNHCR case study suggests how top-down government policies do not solely determine refugee children’s experiences with specialist child protection and education measures. The support of Non-Governmental Organisations and community-driven initiatives can implement more resilient ways to nurture these children. In the Middle East and North Africa, the UNHCR and their partners led discussions with 85,000 adults and children to devise how communities could better protect children. This engages the fundamental human need of participation. Inviting people to share their opinions not only draws on valuable lived experiences but allows people to feel they have agency in the asylum-seeking process.
Listening to community voices is so important for agencies including the UNHCR to identify disabled children needing access to specialist child protection services. In the Middle East and North Africa (MENA), child protection services in refugee-hosting countries are working over capacity. Using school attendance records to identify children’s needs is clearly a limited approach considering low enrolment figures and inaccurate quantitative data. The absence of disabled children from official statistics is a concern which UNICEF raises in their report ‘Seen, Counted, Included’. This stresses how important visibility is to prevent further marginalisation and protect refugees from human rights abuses.
Involving refugees with disabilities in the leadership of community-based support is being recognised as a significant way to strengthen organisations. The Women’s Refugee Commission are bringing disabled women to the forefront of their humanitarian work which includes programmes for adolescents, sexual health education, and addressing gender-based violence. Similarly, in Yemen, peer support groups and counselling programmes are a core part of communal refugee initiatives. A committee of persons with disabilities advocate for non-discriminatory access of refugee children to national child protection systems.
Engaging community leadership has proven to have a positive impact on school enrolment rates and child protection service use. According to the UNHCR MENA report, ‘the percentage of Syrian refugee children who are out of school in MENA host countries was successfully reduced from 70% (August 2013) to 49% (July 2014), with the most progress noted in Jordan and Egypt’. Correspondingly, over 11,000 refugee children were able to access specialised child protection services there in the first half of 2014 alone.
These positive steps suggest how refugee communities can develop resilience to uplift each other. Forming these positive connections is a fundamental need for refugee children who may lack parental role models. This is important because it is crucial that specialist child protection services are structurally robust, but also that disabled refugee children feel encouraged to accept support.
Throughout this article, I have foregrounded the fundamental human needs of refugee children with disabilities. It is crucial to recognise the vulnerabilities of this group of displaced people as they undergo one of the most challenging life experiences possible. However, we should prioritise understanding that each person has unfulfilled strengths which contribute to the health of communities. When we consider what individuals need to feel motivated to reach their potential, policies become more inclusive and sustainable.
Isabelle a second year English student at Oxford University. She researched and wrote this article as part of the Oxford University Micro Internship programme.