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Rights Talk: Refugees with Disability – Overlooked and Underserved

Asylum Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Nujeen speaking at the Australian Human Rights Commission

In this week’s Rights Talk, Nujeen Mustafa, advocate for refugees with disability together with Shantha Rau Barriga, Human Rights Watch’s founding disability rights division director, talked with Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow about the difficulties faced by refugees and asylum seekers with disability.

Nujeen Mustafa became an advocate for refugees with disability after travelling from Syria to Germany in a wheelchair as a 16-year-old. Nujeen told the story of her gruelling 16-month journey over 5600Km from Syria to Germany – and how it propelled her to be a powerful advocate for the rights of refugees and for people with disabilities.

Nujeen described leaving a place of fear and violence and making a frightening and arduous journey, sustained with the belief that she was moving towards a better place and a brighter future, where “everything would be ok”, only to arrive in camps where she had no access to even the most basic services. For example, toilets and washrooms with stairs, or paths with rocky gravel that prevented her moving anywhere at all.

Refugees and asylum seekers with disabilities are often overlooked. Despite being among those most at-risk, they are often neglected in the provision of basic services.

Shantha Rau Barriga, who shared insights from Human Rights Watch’s work in Bangladesh, Central African Republic, South Sudan and Greece on the state of rights for people with disabilities globally, said:

“There are 1 billion people around the world with a disability, and yet they are still invisible when it comes to our societies in many countries, and particularly when it comes to conflict.

”Shantha spoke also of the challenge faced by some refugees even once they make it to mainland Australia. She shared the story of a husband who had to take his disabled wife to a local sports club in a taxi to use facilities. They had to pay access fees to the club and pay for the taxi all because the housing provided to them was inaccessible.

“I think there’s a lot the Australian government can do both domestically to better support those people with disability who have already come over.”

Wrapping up the evening, Nujeen left the audience with this:

“I’m a big fan of history … but nobody actually talks about the people. They are counted. Like, fifty thousand were injured, one hundred thousand were killed … I want people to know that when they read that report or see that piece of news, that behind every piece of news you read, there is a person with a life and ambition and dreams. And a life he has to build. So we are not numbers, we are human. That’s what I am trying to say.”

Human Rights Commissioner Ed Santow thanked Shantha Rau Barriga and Nujeen Mustafa for explaining “so powerfully and eloquently your experience ... and also, what we can do to be our best selves”.

This Rights Talks was hosted by the Australian Human Rights Commission in partnership with Human Rights Watch.

The Australian Human Rights Commission hosts Rights Talks at various points throughout the year. Subscribe to the mailing list or follow us on Facebook to learn about upcoming talks.

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