Legal protection for the world’s most vulnerable

19 March 2019
Protecting refugees with disabilities
In a world-first study, University of Sydney Law School researchers have developed innovative tools to capture lived experiences of some of the world’s most vulnerable people.

The world is currently experiencing the highest levels of displaced people in recorded history.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees:

  • 68.5 million people around the world have been forced from home, including nearly
  • 25.4 million refugees, over half of whom are under the age of 18.

The findings of the University of Sydney study, conducted between 2014-2016, call on States and relevant humanitarian actors to adopt a contextual, rights-based approach to identifying need and vulnerability in policies and practice.

The ‘forgotten and invisible’

Refugees living with disabilities have been described as the ‘forgotten or invisible’ during acute crises of human displacement, even though these refugees face unique challenges.

Until recently, too few people have really thought about persons with disabilities in refugee situations.
Professor Mary Crock

“This is largely due to false assumptions that persons with disabilities are not able to travel, and therefore are not represented amongst refugee populations,” she explained.

Funded by the Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT), Professor Crock, together with Dr Laura Smith-Khan, Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum, and Professor Ben Saul, gained unprecedented access to refugees in six countries – Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Uganda, Jordan and Turkey.

Professor Crock meeting the locals in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Professor Crock meeting the locals in Gaziantep, Turkey.

Capability approach

The team used the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities as a framework to evaluate how governments and aid agencies engage with and accommodate persons with disabilities in situations of displacement.

The Disability Identification Tool developed by the researchers to collect data on the incidence of impairments in refugee populations was central to the research.

“The tool is based on the idea that we should not simply label people according to what we observe. We should ask people directly: ‘what can you do?’” said Professor Crock.

“Our research is part of a global movement towards a ‘capabilities’ approach to human rights,” she continued.

“Refugees may resist volunteering that they are ‘disabled’ for a raft of cultural and practical reasons. However, they will answer honestly when asked to describe what they can and cannot do and what they require to access the necessities of life.”

Case in Focus - Findings from Kuala Lumpur

In Malaysia, the team worked alongside the UNHCR to conduct more than 150 individual interviews with refugees in Kuala Lumpur, and with other key stakeholders. They also conducted the first workshop with relevant stakeholders, including leaders from the Malaysia Disabled Persons Organizations.

Findings from the study helped inform UNHCR’s programming and resulted in improved mechanisms for the identification, prioritisation and delivery of assistance and durable solutions for refugees with disabilities.
Richard Towle, Deputy Director at UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency

“This project is exemplary in its practical application to improve the lives of refugees and in enhancing support to marginalised populations,” he added.

From ‘invisible’ to ‘visible’

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda.

Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda.

The findings of the study have helped influence policy and reform at national and international levels. Notably, the UNHCR has changed its registration and verification procedures, resulting in a dramatic leap in the number of persons with disabilities now recognised as living in displacement populations.

The work has been presented around the world, including at the 8th Meeting of the States Parties to the CRPD at UN Headquarters, New York; the UN Department of Economic and Social Affairs Forum on Disability; the 10th anniversary conference marking the establishment of the CRPD Committee in Geneva; and the 2018 World Bank Law, Justice and Development week in Washington DC.  The team’s findings are set out in a book, The Legal Protection of Refugees with Disabilities, four reports and various articles, most of which are accessible online.

Protecting migrant childen

For Professor Crock, a natural progression of her work to protect refugees and vulnerable migrants has led to her most recent publication, Protecting Migrant Children: In Search of Best Practice, jointly edited with Lenni B. Benson, Professor of Law at New York Law School.

“As a practitioner, or even more so, as a human being, I was moved by my early experiences working with asylum seekers,” said Professor Crock. “Seeing children born in detention is what pushed me to write.”

Drawing together an interdisciplinary and multinational group of experts to assess the nature and root causes of child migration in different parts of the world, the book explores the complex legal and human rights issues that arise when children cross borders as migrants.

Examing global case studies, the work lays the foundations for new paradigms in law, policy and practice in the reception and management of child migrants, refugees and victims of trafficking. 

Professor Crock recently made a series of presentations on the protection of migrant children across the United States, London and at Oxford.


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