Many refugees fleeing war and conflict have disabilities, whether it be mobility issues, special educational needs or sensory impairment. What obstacles must these refugees overcome and what type of help can they receive in Germany?
Refugees and migrants with disabilities may have been born with their disability, or it may have been a consequence of the situation in their home country or their forced displacement. The UN refugee agency UNHCR has said that “refugees with disabilities are more likely to be sidelined in every aspect of humanitarian assistance due to physical, environmental and societal barriers against accessing information, health and rehabilitation services and human rights protection.”
On the ground, a large proportion of refugees are disabled. In 2013, the aid organizations Help Age and Handicap International interviewed 3,200 Syrian refugees in Jordan and Lebanon, with around 30 percent of respondents saying that they had special needs. “Every fifth refugee had physical,nsory or mental limitations and every seventh refugee has suffered from chronic sickness,” the report said.
Many refugees ‘ashamed’ of being disabled
In Germany, the country in Europe that has taken the most refugees, there are projects and initiatives that try to raise awareness about the particular challenges for disabled asylum seekers. The Lebenshilfe organization which is located in various German cities across the country such as Berlin, Frankfurt and Hamburg provides assistance to refugees with disabilities and focuses on integrating these individuals and their families into mainstream German society. Lebenshilfe was also the first organization in Germany that tried to raise awareness towards disabled refugees during the refugee crisis of 2015 and 2016.
Petra Hillekes, who coordinates volunteer workers at the organization, told InfoMigrants that many of the refugees feel “ashamed” of getting outside help. Form her experience of working at refugee reception centers, she said that “the women in these refugee families of those with disabilities overwhelmingly take on the responsibility of taking care of these individuals.” She said that refugee with disabilities come with their families to her organization to receive counseling.
In other cultures like in Syria or Afghanistan, individuals with disabilities look to their families to receive help and tend to live on the outskirts of society, Hillekes explained. They may have trouble processing or accepting the fact that they are disabled. Hillekes and her organization try to make it clear to the refugees in Germany that individuals with disabilities have nothing to be ashamed of, and getting outside help is not a reason for worry or concern.
Petra Hillekes told InfoMigrants that her Lebenshilfe organization is the main lobby for the rights of disabled refugees in Germany.
Hillekes said that refugees with disabilities in Germany often do not know who to contact. “We tell the refugees who to talk to in order to receive a diagnosis, or how they can receive money from the state to pay for care,” she said. According to Asylum Seekers’ Benefits Act, those with urgent medical needs or emergencies can be granted help in the first 15 months after arrival. This includes granting a walker for a refugee with mobility issues or granting refugees accommodation that is wheelchair-accessible.
Doctors can also determine whether the needs of the asylum seekers are immediate. Hillekes noted that many asylum seekers come with disabilities as a result of the conflicts in their countries and that they do not receive adequate medical care on their journey from their home country to Germany. After 15 months, asylum seekers can choose a public health fund. With a regular insurance card, asylum seekers – be it with urgent or non-immediate needs – are entitled to the same treatment as all other members of health insurance funds.
Training for volunteers working with disabled refugees
Hillekes trains around 15 to 16 volunteers to work with refugees with sensory impairment, mental disabilities or mobility issues. Some of the volunteers are even refugees themselves. In one training exercise, volunteers wear glasses that make it seem as if they were visually impaired and they are given a walker. They then do exercises with a ball and traffic cones to experience what life is like for individuals who have difficulties seeing.
Lebenshilfe volunteers provide counseling to the refugees or take them to activities such as going to a movie theater or taking a walk in the park. She said these activities are especially beneficial for refugee children with disabilities as they might get bullied at school or in the reception centers and that this is a way for them to socialize.
Resources for refugees with disabilities in Germany
Lebenshilfe is just one organization that provides assistance for refugees with disabilities in Germany. Refugees with disabilities can also contact their local migration counselling office. Refugees in Berlin, but also in other parts of Germany, can check out this following “Guide to Medical Care for Disabled Refugees” on getting medical treatment, and further explanations on their rights to medical care under German asylum law.
If you are a disabled refugee in need of a doctor, you can also receive counseling by phone or online which can be in your own language
Photo: Nujeen Mustafa, a Syrian refugee who fled to Germany in a wheelchair