Refugees and Disability: Australia urgently needs to expand its scope of ‘inclusion’

There are many people with disabilities who feel they are invisible in the community. This comes from a long history of the ‘medical’ model of disability; that those with disabilities are the problem as opposed to the inaccessible environments/systems being the problem. The Youth Disability Advocacy Network (YDAN) was established with the hopes of providing a voice and empowering young people with disabilities in Western Australia who are typically forgotten and ignored.

In the respective debates about disability rights and refugee rights in Australia, however, we seem to be forgetting the intersection of the two.

First, let’s establish that seeking asylum, whether by boat, through the Commonwealth games, or by plane is not ‘illegal’. This is expressly laid out in the Refugee Convention and by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

Australia is openly defiant of the international laws and bodies it is signatory and party to; our “policies have been widely criticised as contravening human rights both nationally and internationally” (Tazreiter, 2017, p. 246). In fact, in 2015 the former Australian Prime Minister, Tony Abbott, responded to an incredibly scathing report on the Government’s asylum policies by the UN by saying Australians are “sick of being lectured to”.

What do refugees have to do with disability?

Refugees and asylum seekers are often regarded and portrayed as a marginalised homogeneous group – ‘the refugee’. When we look more critically at this, we begin to carve out identities, and see lived experiences. We begin to realise how dangerous the journey is, and the already overwhelmingly difficult processes for seeking asylum become even more difficult; the intersectionality of refugees and disability. Crock, Ernst and McCallum (2013) state:

These are people who suffer triple disadvantage. They are outside of their country of origin. They are stripped of the protections of a state of citizenship or habitual residence, living in fear of persecution if returned to the country from which they have fled. Finally, they are hampered by physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments that hinder their full and effective participation in society. (p. 736)

With so many refugees experiencing disability – either born or acquired through war, poverty, crime or simply the harrowing refugee journey – the expectation would be that states (i.e. Australia in this instance) would protect these vulnerable people (King et al., 2016). This is so often not the case: “the protection challenges faced by the general population of displaced persons are intensified for disabled people” (Pisani, Gretch & Mostafa, 2013, p. 288).

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has traditionally considered those who have disabilities as an afterthought, and with the implementation of the Convention of the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) in 2006, there has been some greater acknowledgment of the difficulties refugees with disabilities may face (Soldatic et al., 2015). Despite Australia being signatory to both of these Conventions, Australia’s Migration Act 1958 is exempt from the Disability Discrimination Act (King et al., 2016).

If we reflect on the difficulties any refugee may have in navigating the systems, difficulties in understanding, communicating, memory and recollection, cognitive functions etc. these may all be further exacerbated by disability (Crock et al., 2013).

How does Australia treat refugees with disabilities?

Refugees are already seen by the Australian Government as a burden on taxpayers (Maley, 2016). Coincidentally, many Australians with disabilities are also viewed in this way, as Glyne (2016) asserts: “meeting our need to live full and productive lives falls under a narrative of charity or pity – something which can no longer be afforded when there are belts to be tightened or hard choices to be made” (p.56). The additional difficulties associated with refugees having a disability often means that states create mechanisms to “actively ‘screen out’ disabled migrants for resettlement” (Soldatic et al., 2015, p. 502); Pisani et al., explains that “the non-citizen disabled person would amount to an economic and social burden on the state, ergo a threat to the state” (2013, p. 297). Which is somewhat ironic given the conditions causing people to seek asylum and the journey itself creates high rates of disability (King et al., 2016; Soldatic et al., 2015).

The removal of human from ‘human rights’ and viewing refugees as a number through a financial lens is inherently discriminatory against those with disabilities. Australia’s protection visa programs include a health assessment, to ensure refugees are not going to place burden on the taxpayer. This has been amended as long as the Department of Immigration and Border Protection (now Department of Home Affairs) is satisfied that, despite failing a health assessment which a person with disability likely would, a visa can be granted if it is “unlikely to result in undue costs or prejudice to access” (Soldatic et al., 2015, p. 503). In other words, those with disabilities can be granted visas, so long as their disability doesn’t require services or care.

With systems that place economic value on refugees, there is further punishment and neglect of an already disadvantaged group. Tanabe et al., (2015) claims: “in humanitarian settings, the published and gray literature show that the marginalization and exclusion of persons with disabilities put them at increased risk of sexual violence, rape, domestic abuse, and physical assault” (p. 412). The literature also tells us that the greater the diversity of intersections of the marginalised or oppressed results in greater risk of harm, they will “face multiple discrimination on the basis of their gender, age and social status, as well as their disability” (Reilly, 2010, p. 8). Mawson, Nicholls, and Stewart (2016) note that:

“Australia is leading the world in its punitive treatment of asylum seekers, indefinitely detaining all asylum seekers arriving by boat in government-sponsored offshore detention facilities” (p. 1).

Through viewing the ‘value’ and ‘cost’ of refugees, it drastically impacts some of the most vulnerable: children with disability. Soldatic et al., observes instances where: “resettlement has been granted to other members of the family, including the disabled child’s parents, while the disabled child has been denied entry” (2015, p. 506). This compounds the risks for refugees given disability, youth and young people, un-accompaniment and gender increases the risk of sexual abuse, and sex trafficking (Nardone & Correa-Velez, 2015).

We know that the offshore detention centres, being held in indefinite detention, and even the use of temporary protection visa’s (TPV’s) severely impacts the psychological health of asylum seekers and refugees (Pederson et al., 2012). Whether those seeking asylum had a disability upon arrival or not, the Australian Government is ensuring the demise of mental health for generations to come, Doherty and Vasefi (2018) document the feelings of one 12 year old boy, Ali, on Nauru:

“From the age of seven, when I came here, I have been stuck. I had so many dreams but they have all blown away. I wanted to become an important person but instead I became nothing – even worse than nothing”.

With the Australian Government’s recent decision to cut further funding from income support to thousands who are in the long process of seeking asylum (often years), Australia will further negatively impact their wellbeing and lives (Davidson, 2018). The program provides an allowance, casework support, housing assistance and much needed counselling to potential refugees. With these cuts the Australian Government is creating greater difficulty and suffering to already vulnerable and oppressed people.

What is the solution?

All marginalised and oppressed people have their fights. For some people in the disability community, we have been fighting almost our whole lives. The refugee issue is one that is increasing and needs addressing. If we are to truly call ourselves activists and advocates, we need to also be advocating for refugees.

We need to tell the Australian Government to stop discriminating against those with disabilities, by them doing so it is sending a message to us that people with disabilities are a burden on society. We need to tell the Australian Government that we will not stand for the hypocrisy of saying they support mental health and those with disabilities, to then place human beings in torturous conditions, worsening the mental health issues of people. We need to tell the Australian Government that it is beyond time to close the camps that torture human beings, bring those seeking asylum to Australia where they can call it home, and to start having some respect and dignity for people – including people with disabilities.

If you are interested in learning more or doing more for refugees, visit the Asylum Seeker Resource Centre here:

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Davidson, H. (May 17, 2018). Asylum seekers ‘face destitution’ as income support and housing cut off. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Dickson, A. (2015). Distancing Asylum Seekers from the State: Australia’s evolving political geography of immigration and border control. Australian Geographer, 46(4), 437-454.

Doherty, B., & Vesafi, S. (April 26, 2018). Asylum seeker boy on Nauru pleads for medical help for his mother. The Guardian. Retrieved from:

Glyn, J. (2016). History of disability discrimination is present in Australia. Eureka Street, 26(6), 54-57.

Kenny, M. A., Procter, N., & Grech, C. (2016). Mental health and legal representation for asylum seekers in the ‘legacy caseload’. Cosmopolitan Civil Societies: An Interdisciplinary Journal, 8(2), 84-103.

King, J., Edwards, N., Correa-Velez, I., Hair, S., & Fordyce, M. (2016). Disadvantage and disability: Experiences of people from refugee backgrounds with disability living in Australia. Disability and the Global South, 3(1), 843-864.

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Pisani, M., Grech, S., & Mostafa, A. (2016). Disability and Forced Migration: Intersections and Critical Debates, in Grech, S, and Soldatic, K. (eds.). Disability in the Global South, International Perspectives on Social Policy, Administration, and Practice. Springer International Publishing: Switzerland

Reilly, R. (2010). Disabilities among refugees and conflict-affected populations. Forced Migration Review, 35(35), 8-10.

Soldatic, K., Somers, K., Buckley, A., & Fleay, C. (2015). ‘Nowhere to be found’: disabled refugees and asylum seekers within the Australian resettlement landscape. Disability and the Global South, 2(1), 501-522.

Tanabe, M., Nagujjah, Y., Rimal, N., Bukania, F., & Krause, S. (2015). Intersecting sexual and reproductive health and disability in humanitarian settings: Risks, needs, and capacities of refugees with disabilities in Kenya, Nepal, and Uganda. Sexuality and Disability, 33(4), 411-427.

Tazreiter, C. (2017). The unlucky in the ‘lucky country’: asylum seekers, irregular migrants and refugees and Australia’s politics of disappearance. Australian Journal of Human Rights, 23(2), 242-260.

United Nations 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees and 1967 Protocol. Retrieved from: