Uprooted and Overlooked: Why people with disabilities fleeing conflict and violence are among those most at risk

The eight year long violence in the north-eastern part of Nigeria has destroyed properties, claimed thousands of lives and displaced many people. CBM began an emergency intervention in November 2016 through two of its partners (COCIN & HANDS) in Borno and Yobe states. Pictured here is a food distribution activity at Muna and Teachers village camps, Maiduguri, Borno state.
© COCIN

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities we draw from IDMC’s latest research in Nigeria and Colombia to highlight how the negative effects of displacement fall heavily on those with disabilities.

Communities are most frequently attacked without warning and usually in the early hours” says David Sabo, a humanitarian programme specialist with CBM n Nigeria.

He shares the story of a young woman with mobility difficulties from Borno State: "When Boko Haram attacked their community, her two brothers tried to carry her so they could run together.” As they tried to lift her, the insurgents killed her two brothers, sparing her life but leaving her traumatised in the process. “Because of such experiences”, David explains, “people with disabilities will often tell their families during such attacks: ‘just go, if I perish, I perish.”

With rising insecurity in Nigeria, attacks like this are not uncommon. And while the impacts of such violence are devastating for everyone, people with disabilities tend to be disproportionately affected. Insufficient warning and a lack of assistive devices make it harder for people with disabilities to flee from violence. Those who do manage to escape are exposed to numerous threats, but are often excluded from support.

About seven million internally displaced persons (IDPs) could be living with a disability

An estimated 15% of the global population has a disability. Applying this rate to the 48 million people still displaced by conflict and violence at the end of 2020 suggests about seven million internally displaced people (IDPs) could be living with a disability.

The prevalence of disabilities is often expected to be higher among displaced populations owing to the increased number of injuries among IDPs and their poor access to healthcare. The use of landmines, torture, sexual violence and other traumatic events during conflict can give rise to new physical and psychosocial disabilities among IDPs and exacerbate their pre-existing disabilities.

Data gaps and widespread under-reporting make it difficult to assess the true scale of the issue. Of the 6.7 million registered victims of displacement and subject to attention in Colombia, only 3% reported having some type of disability. But in a recent study conducted by IDMC in the Colombian municipality of Caucasia, 20% of surveyed IDPs (50) were identified as having disabilities, according to the threshold recommended by the Washington Group on Disability Statistics.

Disability prevalence could also be lower among displaced populations, especially if those with disabilities are prevented from fleeing. In a similar study conducted in Jos, Nigeria, 2% of surveyed IDPs (3) were identified as having disabilities themselves, while 13% of displaced households included at least one member with a disability.

IDPs with disabilities face overlapping challenges

The Colombian Constitutional Court has recognised that people with disabilities are disproportionately affected by displacement and are at greater risk of violence, discrimination and exclusion. Important steps have been taken at an institutional level to more systematically monitor and report on IDPs with disabilities, address barriers to institutional support, and give visibility to the rights and needs of victims of the armed conflict with disabilities.

Despite progress, however, the findings from Caucasia suggest that some IDPs with disabilities are still missing out. Seventy-eight per cent of the IDPs with disabilities surveyed in Caucasia reported that their physical health had worsened since leaving their home, compared with 39% of IDPs without disabilities.

Eighty-seven per cent of those with disabilities said they do not receive specialised healthcare or equipment to help with their displacement, while 90% said they had never been consulted about how assistance could be adapted to their needs.

Economic barriers can also prevent IDPs with disabilities and their families from accessing services. In fact, the average monthly income of displaced households with at least one member with disabilities surveyed in Jos was $35 per month, compared with $49 for households without a member with disabilities. Mr Sabo recalls meeting a young Nigerian girl who was deaf: “Because her family was displaced and could no longer raise money, she wasn’t able to go back to school”.

More inclusive humanitarian action is needed

The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities calls on governments to ensure the safety and protection of people with disabilities in humanitarian emergencies, including armed conflict. To date, over 180 countries have ratified the treaty, but questions remain regarding how such commitments can be translated into practice.

According to Mr Sabo, the IASC Guidelines on the Inclusion of Persons with Disabilities in Humanitarian Action are a good place to start. The guidelines provide comprehensive sector-specific strategies for governments and humanitarian actors to combine inclusive mainstreaming programming with targeted interventions for people with disabilities. Collecting data disaggregated by disability is one of the four ‘must do’ actions of the guidelines to enhance planning, implementation and monitoring.

The Special Rapporteur on the Human Rights of Persons with Disabilities has also called for greater efforts to protect the rights of people with disabilities in armed conflict, noting that particular attention should be given to displaced women, girls, older people and members of ethnic minorities, who face amplified risks.  

People with disabilities have multiple and intersecting identities and thus different kinds of vulnerabilities before, during and after displacement. Guaranteeing their active participation and consultation in all stages of the peace-conflict continuum is essential to understanding their diverse needs and learning from their expertise.

CBM's support to crisis-affected people in Nigeria

CBM has been working in Nigeria since 1968. Since 2016, the CBM programme has started to also put a strong emphasis on the humanitarian and recovery support to crisis affected populations with a geographical focus on the country’s Northeast (Borno, Yobe and Adamawa state). In 2019, CBM has also started working in Plateau state as a response to increasing humanitarian needs resulting from clashes between herders and farmers.

The work of CBM in Plateau state is strongly supported by the German Federal Ministry for Economic Cooperation and Development (BMZ) with a total funding of2.8 million Euros between 2019 and 2023. The BMZ-funded project focuses on strengthening the resilience of conflict-affected host communities and IDPs in the Benue, Nasarawa and Plateau regions through a multi-level approach that includes disability-inclusive health and WASH services as well as livelihood support measures. Through cooperation with relevant ministries, departments, and agencies in the federal states, equipping farmers with special equipment and setting up new structures (establishing self-help groups for mental health, savings groups, and medical referral services), individuals and community groups are capacitated and thus, enabled to become more resilient against economic, social, and health-related risks. Since its start in 2019, more than 30,000 people have benefited from this project.

As part of CBMs work in Nigeria, an emphasis is also put on collaborating with other humanitarian and development actors to build their capacity on disability inclusion. Following this approach, CBM has supported the IDMC study on internal displacement in Plateau state through the engagement in key informant interviews and the review of the report. CBM strongly welcomes the engagement of IDMC which is an important step forward to increase the evidence and understanding of the specific risks of persons with disabilities in conflict settings and humanitarian crisis.