Asylum-seekers and Refugees with Intellectual Disabilities in Europe

By Amy Luce, Social Connectedness Fellow 2018

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People with intellectual disabilities (ID) are “one of the most misunderstood populations in the world today.” The lack of awareness and negative stigma surrounding ID has led to this population being unjustly labeled as a “burden,” “incompetent,” and “incapable,” resulting in the deprivation of their agency and numerous barriers to social connectedness.

Isolation of people with ID is only worsened during times of displacement. Displaced persons with disabilities (not limited to ID) are reported to “face added risks of abandonment, neglect, and lack of equal access to food and healthcare.” Almost 500,000 displaced people around the world have ID.

The current migrant crisis, beginning in 2015, is no exception. During the last three years, an estimated 1.5 million people have sought refuge in Europe. There continues to be insufficient cooperation among EU member states to effectively respond to this mass influx of asylum-seekers and refugees from the Middle East and North Africa. As a result, Europe is overwhelmed and “tens of thousands are stranded in camps, living hand to mouth on the streets of cities or under the constant threat of deportation.” Migrants are further isolated in society due to increasing xenophobia and Islamophobia, paralleling the rise of far-right and populist parties in the region.

Nonetheless, asylum-seekers and refugees with ID continue to be left out of the conversation. There is no available data on the prevalence of ID in Europe’s migrant population nor are there any provisions in Southern “frontline states” – Cyprus, Greece, Italy, Malta, and Spain – mentioned in the Asylum Information Database (AIDA) to specifically identify asylum-seekers with ID. While countries do have mechanisms in place to identify “vulnerable” applicants, disability in general is grouped together with other forms of “vulnerability” such as abuse, mental disorders, and age.

Even if a migrant with ID were to be identified, they may not have access to adequate support services. An area of particular concern is healthcare. After arriving to Europe and being placed in an overcrowded camp with few resources (like in Lesbos, Greece), a person with ID would likely be assisted by healthcare professionals from Europe who have received “scarce” training on ID and may be unable or unwilling to provide necessary treatment.

One organization that has provided an incredible opportunity to break down these stigmas and foster social connectedness for migrants with ID in Europe is Special Olympics. This organization empowers individuals with ID around the world through sporting events, health screenings, and advocacy campaigns. In June of 2017, Special Olympics Cyprus “invited refugee youth from the Konifou Reception Centre for asylum-seekers to come and play a floorball match in Larnaca.” A similar effort was carried out by Special Olympics Malta shortly after. These matches followed Special Olympics’ Unified Sports model, which “brings people with and without intellectual disabilities together on the same team to compete.” By connecting asylum-seekers and refugees with local youth who have ID, Special Olympics created a unique space with exciting potential to increase awareness of ID in migrant communities, combat xenophobia and Islamophobia in European communities, and empower migrants with and without ID.

This is a picture taken from the Special Olympics Unified Sports floorball match in Cyprus. Participants included migrants and local Cypriots.

Correspondingly, there has been a noticeable increase in advocacy for migrants with all disabilities in Europe. For instance, Human Rights Watch and the European Disability Forum recently called for European Parliament to “ensure that [EU] funds for refugees also reach those with disabilities.” While this did not explicitly mention ID, it does show heightened awareness of an often excluded population. Likewise, Human Rights Watch has created a powerful video documenting the hardships that migrants with disabilities face in Europe.

Although there exists a large responsibility on the part of European governments and humanitarian organizations to include migrants with ID in their programs, we must also educate ourselves individually and raise awareness to others about this issue. In the future, when learning about a new initiative in Europe that supports asylum-seekers and refugees, ask yourself: “Does this specifically include people with ID?” Ask the same question about activities in your own community. Be an agent of positive change. Advocate for more inclusive policies to eradicate negative stigma and barriers to social connectedness that are unfairly imposed on people with ID.  

Below are links to videos that provide further information about this topic:

  • To learn more about people with ID and the work that Special Olympics does:
  • To learn more about the situation of asylum-seekers and refugees in Europe today:
  • “The Way Point: A visual journey through Lesbos, the gateway to Europe”: https://www.washingtonpost.com/graphics/world/lesbos/