Forgotten and invisible? The legal protection of refugees with disabilities

By September 11, 2017Migration

Before starting my PhD in sociolinguistics at Macquarie University, I had the great privilege of being involved in a research project that was run out of Sydney Law School at the University of Sydney. The project explored how disability was conceptualised, acknowledged and accommodated in government and NGO programmes assisting refugees. Over three years, I assisted the project’s Chief Investigators, Professors Mary Crock and Ben Saul and Emeritus Professor Ron McCallum AO, travelling to Malaysia, Indonesia, Pakistan, Uganda, Jordan and Turkey. Our focus was on uncovering how (or whether) the newly created UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) influences responses to forced migration. We used this rights-based lens to then explore the lived reality for refugees and identify the challenges they faced in displacement, making recommendations for change and reflecting on how the very nature of being outside one’s country of citizenship can be a barrier in itself.

After we completed our fieldwork, we were fortunate to obtain additional funding; first, to travel to New York to share our findings at the United Nations; and second, to bring together our findings in the first book to be published on this topic: The Legal Protection of Refugees with Disabilities has just been published.

For me personally, this project was a unique opportunity as a young researcher – I was able to gain invaluable experience designing, coordinating and carrying out fieldwork across six different countries, with a variety of people, in a variety of languages. I learned many valuable lessons which have hopefully helped me grow as a researcher and contributed to my capabilities as a PhD candidate.

But what does this project, which centres around international human rights law, have to do with language or sociolinguistics? While this research is officially within a very different field, I have still identified so many points of crossover, or ways of thinking, that have really helped each of my research fields.

Article 1 of the CRPD states:

Persons with disabilities include those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.

Laura during fieldwork in Nakivale Refugee Settlement, Uganda, 2013

Instead of placing the focus on the individual, the CRPD, both in Article 1 and throughout the remainder of its provisions, places the onus on societies. It forces us to think about the way our physical, social and legal structures differentially impact the various individuals who come into contact with them. For me, this critical reflection is also key to my growth as a sociolinguistics researcher.

For example, it may be easy to blame migrants for the various challenges they face: not being able to get a high-paying job, or having difficulty at school. But is this really about their individual ‘flaws’, or not trying hard enough, or does it have more to do with the legal, social, political and linguistic structures in our societies, which impact us all differently, advantaging some more than others?

In Chapter 6 of our book, for example, we discuss how a lack of work rights in many displacement settings greatly increased the risk of acquiring a disability, as refugees may be forced into exploitative and unregulated work.

Aside from legal status issues, language barriers played a significant role in access to a range of services – including gaining the knowledge that services existed in the first place. A comparison between the Syrian refugee populations in Turkey and Jordan provides an apt example: most Syrians in Jordan were able to communicate directly with locals, and even those who used Sign Language were more likely to find someone with whom they could communicate – Jordanian and Syrian Sign Language are mutually intelligible, and those literate in Arabic could also use written text to communicate. This obviously facilitated service provision, and access to work and education. By contrast, in Turkey, despite the government making very clear and concerted efforts to assist the Syrians there, language barriers created significant challenges in every aspect of life and access to services.

A refugee-run business in Za’atari Refugee Camp, Jordan, 2014

In places like Malaysia and Indonesia, although there were local disability rights organisations doing important work to advocate for greater inclusion, the invisibility of refugees living in their community, along with language barriers, meant that refugees largely missed out on benefiting from these groups. When we interviewed participants from Myanmar, the interpreters (themselves refugees) explained that they could not even translate ‘human rights’ as it was a completely unfamiliar concept – and we soon gave up asking. This contrasted with the situation in Uganda, where many of the refugees we met with had participated in programmes aimed at improving their rights, and when we spoke with them they were well versed in the ‘language’ of the CRPD and the concepts and rights it promotes.

Prolonged displacement situations are pertinent examples of how these types of linguistic barriers can play out quite differently over time depending on the particular structures in place in the host country. For example, in Malaysia, where young refugees have no access to the education system, their development of literacy and language skills is limited to what is offered by refugee volunteers. These classes are usually conducted in the language of the refugee group, and a range of barriers exist for children with disabilities, given the location of these ‘schools’ – in high-rise apartments, up narrow staircases – and the types of facilities they have – volunteer teachers with limited training, no assistance for those who need extra help, limited access to basic assistive technology like glasses or hearing aids. This understandably limits integration within the host society, and in any future country of resettlement, and the likelihood of being able to participate in the workforce in the future.

In contrast, in Uganda, where refugees are officially welcomed and permitted to settle permanently in the country, refugee children have the right to access local schools, and, in the case of a number of children who were deaf or hard of hearing who we met in camps in the south of the country, they may even be able to access specialised education, where needed.

In each setting, age-based policies that limited specific types of assistance to children (under 18 years) meant that those who had had disruptions due to their experiences as refugees or living through conflict situations may simply age out of opportunities that locals would have been able to access as soon as the need arose, following a ‘normal’ timeline.

It is unsurprising that these different levels of access would lead to different opportunities to participate in the host society, in both the short and long term, and very different experiences of what it means to have a disability. These experiences have reinforced for me the fundamental importance for social justice that we continue to question the way social, political and legal structures – and the beliefs and attitudes that underlie them – can impact on participation for the diverse individuals who make up our communities.


Crock, Mary, Laura Smith-Khan, Ron McCallum, and Ben Saul. 2017. The Legal Protection of Refugees with Disabilities: Forgotten and Invisible? Cheltenham, UK and Northampton, MA: Edward Elgar. Access the eBook and read the first chapter for free.

Images copyright of Mary Crock/University of Sydney.

Author Laura Smith-Khan

Laura is a PhD candidate in the Department of Linguistics, Macquarie University. She is admitted as a lawyer in NSW and has conducted fieldwork with refugees across four continents and focused on the inclusion of refugees with disabilities. Her current research focuses on language policy and language ideology in Australian asylum procedures. She loves learning new languages and speaking about anything language or communication related.

More posts by Laura Smith-Khan
  • Sadami Konchi

    Mary, thank you for such an important article that advocates the voiceless. Even in Australia, a language barrier can be a fatal obstacle for people with disability to access social and medicare system. I’ve been witnessing the issues for ages. Please speak out and act on behalf of suffering people.

  • Sadami Konchi

    Mary, thank you for such an important article that advocates the voiceless. Even in Australia, a language barrier can be a fatal obstacle for people with disability to access social and medicare system. I’ve been witnessing the issues for ages. Please speak out and act on behalf of suffering people.

  • LauraSK

    Thanks for sharing your pictures and for your encouragement @sadamikonchi:disqus !

  • Tricia

    Congratulations on your latest publication, Laura!😃 Thank you for bravely exploring and articulating the truth about the disabling structures in society, which further alienate those with physical and mental challenges. Have you explored ways to help address this issue?🤔

  • LauraSK

    Thanks Tricia! We do make some recommendations throughout the book, but I really believe that the most important step, at least as a first step, is simply to become more aware of these structures and the effects they have – drawing attention to these things is so important. It starts encouraging those in positions of power and decision-making to consider how they design programs and where they spend funding. Even just over the course of the three years of our fieldwork, for example, we noticed big positive developments in the way the NGOs we interacted with were working.

  • Dee

    This is an incredibly insightful post. So often refugees are spoken of as a homogenous group. You have highlighted that the challenges faced by the many displaced people around the world are varied. Also that limited knowledge of language is not the only barrier that may negatively impact resettlement. I hope your work has a long lasting impact on social justice awareness for refugees with disabilities.


    Thank you for this very interesting information. It is exploring positive ways to enrich lives of those who have a disability and language constrains. While some contexts are responding to ensuring that structures are accessible for persons with disability, others have a long way to go. A positive experience I witnessed, was travelling with a person with disability to study abroad. There was much excitement. I didn’t have a chance to chat with the person but could sense that the joy of moving to a new place to study made him feel he was just like others. However, the academic culture and language of the new place would surely be challenging. He had an aid who was a relative. The aid was always with him due to the inaccessibility constrained by the structures in where they lived. Reaching out to understanding how difficult and challenging is such an inspiring act.

  • S. J. L.

    Thank you for the insightful article. Often many governments do not pay attention to refugees so they have to face a lot of disadvantages such as racial discrimination. In addition, considering the general difficulties of the disabled, refugees with disability confront much more obstacles. Indeed, solutions for the refugees are hard to find but at least this article seems to help people to take one step forward.

  • Luc Belliveau

    This is a very interesting article in how it highlights the ways in which linguistic and ability based barriers to entry impact refugees. It is pointed out here that Uganda, which allows for long term settlement of refugees, offers better educational opportunities and support for people with special needs than Malaysia, which does not.

    I can’t help but think about a conference I attended about poverty in Canada, where it was mentioned by several speakers that knowledge of services targeted at reducing poverty remained low, and a professor of mine asked whether that could be an intentional, but unwritten cost saving feature. I think that this demonstrates the need for pressure to be put on governments to produce programs that don’t sacrifice effectiveness and reach (including for minority language speakers) for budgetary reasons, and to treat refugees as human beings with rights and intersectional needs, and not a buck to pass along.

  • Tricia

    That’s great news! You’re right. It starts with educating those in power and then hoping that they are persuaded to apply this new knowledge to the policies they draft and enact. Good luck with your advocacy, Laura! 🙂

  • Eleonora Beolchi

    What a delicate topic to talk about and investigate, congratulations on your work, Laura!
    I don’t know much about it, but I really enjoyed the reading and I find it heart-warming to see that there are people like you that decide to spend time to research, interpret, understand and help refugees to gain some rights as well as spread the word out there about what happens in some parts of the world.

  • Katherine Douglas

    I was very surprised to learn that certain countries had much less language barriers than others e.g. Syrian Sign Language is very similar to Jordanian Sign Language, meaning Deaf people from these two areas could communicate fairly well. However, migrants affected by disabilities in other countries faced significant communication problems. I was surprised to learn that Malaysia and Indonesia do not even have the concept of “human rights” in their language! Also: limited educational rights, no extra help offered, and little access to hearing aids or glasses to help reading as well!

    What rights we do take for granted in Australia – hearing aids or cochlear implants, the right to learn Sign Language and join the Australian Deaf community (where we can make other Deaf friends), Auslan Interpreters, extra educational, legal and career help access to glasses and so much more! (e.g. provided by Deaf Society of NSW, Parramatta). I suspected this happened to some degree in different parts of the world, but this article really was an eye-opener.
    I also agree that it is very well to blame individuals for their disabilities, because people think it is easier than taking a look at society as a whole and its structures that favour some people, and not others. Thank you, Laura for this post!

  • Yeongju Lee

    Thanks for sharing this interesting post!!

    The topic of this article is definitely new to me.
    Living as a migrant must be harsh since they have several difficulties that they have to overcome in their lives.
    Also, living as a disabled person is also tough since there are many difficulties in their lives due to physical or mental health problems.
    However, I have never thought about disabled migrants and their difficulties before I read this article.
    Since for both parties, there are not proper services, facilities, and structures that are supposed to be.
    Then, I can’t even imagine how challenging for disabled migrants to adjust in new situations under poor service, facilities, and structures without proper supports. It is good that this book was published to fight for disabled migrants!

  • Ulfath Sadia

    Thank you so much for this insightful article. Refugees always had to go through many hardship when the move to a new country for a temporary shelter. This article reminds me of the war of Independence of Bangladesh from Pakistan in 1971. Around 20 million Bangladeshi had to take refuge in India during that bloody war and I have read books by the refuges about the hardships the faced during those nine months of war. Now In Bangladesh, we have around 1 million Rohingya Refugees from Myanmar, and our government is trying to provide them all the necessary things in order to reduce their difficulties.


    Such a powerful post about refugees with disabilities. Thank you very much for enlightening me and others about this understudied area of research. It is truly heartbreaking to know that the refugees living in some parts of the world do not receive the proper assistance from the local authorities. The first step toward change is awareness so hopefully more projects like yours will be carried out to help to raise awareness and call for social justice.

  • Yeji LEE

    The title of this post makes me think of many challenges and discriminative treatments that disabled refugees might have went through in the host society. Actually, I used to think of the difficulties of refugees’ life in a totally new country, but I have never thought about refugees with disability. It is definitely much harder to live and adapt themselves because of not only the language problems but also their mental or physical difficulties. Of course, there can be many policies that helps them to live much better, but as a refugee, feeling like an outsider, it is doubtful whether they can be protected under those policies really well. I would like to know more about them.

  • Ka Ho Lawrence HO

    Dear Professor Piller and fellow classmates,

    I agree that developed countries should help to accommodate refugees as much as they can. After reading this post, I did a mini online research on how the international societies should provide to accommodate the psychological meets of psychoeducational needs of deaf refugee children from journal articles. I found a journal article which include some interesting findings. Tane & Ester (2000) point out the three levels of intervention which can satisfy this needs to this group of people. Teachers should develop specialised plans for this group of students and acknowledge their specific cultural characteristics. Also, both emotional and learning needs of students have to meet. Parents’ participation is important as schools and teachers can have a better understanding towards students. The use of sign language is a favorable factor for teachers to communicate with deaf students and build up a relationship with them.

    Just some thoughts,


    Tane, A. C. & Ester, C. (2000). Meeting the psychoeducational needs of deaf immigrant and refugee children. Canadian Journal of School Psychology, 15(2), 1-18.

  • Thank you for the pertinent reference!