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Disabled Refugee Urges EU to Improve Conditions in Camps

  • Marthe van der Wolf

FILE - A woman refugee sits on a wheelchair among tents at the port of Piraeus, near Athens, Greece, April 9, 2016.

Refugees in Greek camps are faced with many challenges, but those encountered by disabled refugees make an already difficult life even tougher.

Nujeen Mustafa is an 18-year-old refugee in a wheelchair who lived in the Syrian city of Aleppo.

“I thought maybe my family cannot evacuate if something happens because of me. We didn’t have a lift and we lived on the fifth floor. It makes you feel like you’re a barrier between your family and safety,” said Mustafa.

She and her family managed to flee Aleppo and made it to Greece by 2015. The journey by road and sea was more difficult for her because of her physical disability.

Mustafa, who has since made her way to Germany where she now attends school, spoke at the European Parliament to share her story with politicians, urging them to improve conditions for disabled refugees.

"I consider myself one of the lucky ones to what I’ve got in my life now. But being here and sitting in this room, it’s kind of sad fact that in the 21st century, toilets and basic services are considered a luxury for some people," she said. "... all of us, and especially people with disabilities, deserve much better."

The difficult terrain and precarious living conditions in the reception centers and camps can make simple things, such as using a toilet when disabled, close to impossible.

European Union Commissioner for Humanitarian Aid and Crisis Management Christos Stylianides met with Mustafa at the Parliament, and said that funding rental accommodations outside the camps is a priority for him.

"To see more disabled people to move from camps to rental accommodation. For me, it’s a very important objective to reduce the number of disabled people living in camps," he said. "Because definitely the rental accommodation can give more dignity to the refugees and in particular for the disabled people, and at the same time make our aid more efficient."

FILE - Fifteen-year-old Ahmed Khalil Isa, a disabled Syrian teenager, sits in his wheelchair outside his family's tent at the Ritsona refugee camp north of Athensm, Greece, Sept. 19, 2016.
FILE - Fifteen-year-old Ahmed Khalil Isa, a disabled Syrian teenager, sits in his wheelchair outside his family's tent at the Ritsona refugee camp north of Athensm, Greece, Sept. 19, 2016.

'Overlooked and underserved'

Human Rights Watch reported in January that refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities are “overlooked and underserved” in Greek reception centers. The report underscores that because there are no targeted programs for those with disabilities, they do not have equal access to basic services.

Helga Stevens, a member of the European Parliament, who is deaf, is co-chair of the parliament’s Disability Intergroup. She said she believes access to information and communication for the disabled are crucial.

"Agency staff must be trained and their awareness raised to the very specific issues that persons with disabilities face," said Stevens. "I notice there is a willingness, however, there [are] issues with lack of resources. That’s a serious problem, we need to be able to provide them with more training and more opportunities. So that they can learn about the need and rights of people with disabilities."

Gunta Anca, with the European Disability Forum, said the situation for the disabled can be improved only if data is collected. According to Anca, camps and reception centers do not register how many disabled refugees there are.

"In those situations when it's invisible disabilities, you cannot see anything and there is no question asked to the people, ‘Do you need anything?’ It also means there is no information on how many people there are with such kinds of disabilities," said Anca. "So you cannot find out how much and what kind of support they need. And it’s very difficult to plan and provide in those cases, if you don’t know what to provide and to whom to provide."

The Syrian war marked its sixth anniversary on March 15, and estimates put the number of Syrians who have fled to other nations at more than five million, and more than six million are believed to be displaced within the country.

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