On the occasion of World Refugee Day, observed every year on June 20, the Arab Renaissance for Democracy and Development (ARDD) held on Wednesday, June 17, 2020, a special virtual session titled “Social Protection for the Most Vulnerable Groups: Refugees, Including People with Disabilities”. The discussion is part of a series of regional dialogues on social protection in the Arab region held by ARDD within the activities of “Young voices and the future of refugees from and in the Arab World”.
This dialogue, held through ARDD’s Facebook page, aimed at “exploring Arab experts and decision makers’ views on the multi-dimensional impact of the Coronavirus pandemic in the region, including on justice, levels of poverty and social protection, especially because providing protection to migrants, refugees and the disabled has become a challenge for all parties involved”, said Her Excellency Dr. Sawsan Al Majali, chair of the Senate Labor and Development Committee and dialogue moderator.
Participants included Secretary General of the Higher Council for the Rights of Persons with Disabilities in Jordan Dr. Mohannad Al-Azza, President of the Lebanese Physically Handicapped Union Sylvana Lakkis, senior policy advisor to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) regional office-Jordan Shaden Khalaf, and immigration expert and professor at the American University in Cairo Amira Ahmad.
The Arab region hosts 40% of the total world immigrants; besides the burden posed by successive waves of refugees, the region faces other challenges as well, resulting from economic crises and associated phenomena, such as poverty and unemployment. The problems in the region have been compounded by the current Coronavirus pandemic, especially in regard to affording social protection to the most vulnerable groups, including migrant laborers, refugees and people with disabilities, who suffer from discrimination and marginalization.
“The percentage of people with disabilities in Jordan exceeds 10% of the population aged 5 and above,” said Al-Azza, adding that this group should be given even more care in the event of accidents and disasters, as is the case of the Coronavirus pandemic, “but unfortunately, this is not a top priority on the national agenda”.
Al-Azza added that people with disabilities face two other major problems during the current crisis, namely lack of/ inability to access the correct information in time and high vulnerability to infection.
Regionally, Lakkis stressed the need for the society to take into account the diversity of disabilities and to integrate the disabled in the labor force, as well as to get rid of the cultural prejudice against them.
Economically, Lakkis said, the pandemic led to the laying of more than 200,000 Lebanese, mostly from among day laborers who come from poor families and suffer from different disabilities. PWDs depend on international organizations to provide them services in the Arab countries. PWD in the Arab world, she said, are not unemployed by choice, they lack access to the labor market.”
More on the challenges faced by the refugees in general, Khalaf said]that “the Coronavirus pandemic has shown how critical the asylum issue is, as the average duration of asylum reaches 20 years.” She also pointed to the lack of long-term comprehensive solutions to the refugees and host countries’ problems, and the fact that refugees are denied working and social protection rights.
Ahmad, talking about migrant workers and their sufferings, highlighted the “mistake of considering immigration and asylum seeking as temporary issues”, pointing to the Syrians who were seeking refuge, escaping from war, but have remained in the host countries for over seven years now. She also drew attention to the growing use of hate speech, which is one of the most negative aspects suffered by immigrants and refugees in the times of the Corona pandemic. The suffering of the aforementioned groups and of the internally displaced, has been heightened, compared to that before the pandemic.
The Refugees, Displaced Persons and Forced Migration Studies predict that post-pandemic consequences, include loss of jobs, a worsening of the social class differences and of forced migrants’ conditions, changed immigration policies and increased illegal migration resorting to more and more dangerous ways to do it.
The challenges faced by refugees and displaced people, including the ones with disabilities among them are immense, but the forum participants advised viewing the large number of immigrants in the region as an opportunity, not a crisis.
The Coronavirus crisis makes continuous dialogue among organizations and governments important, with a view to including refugees in social protection systems and fighting poverty within host communities. The session participants also stressed the importance of analyzing the impact of the pandemic on different countries in the region and on immigrants, in order to come up with long-term solutions.” At the same time, measures must be taken to deal with people with disabilities during the pandemic, to include them in emergency response plans and to provide them with support.
The speakers stressed the importance of exerting collaborative efforts to provide services to all people with disabilities in an institutional and orderly manner, of emphasizing their humanity and enabling them to contribute to, work for and build their societies.
Care for people with disabilities should be accompanied by care for refugees and immigrants who should enjoy rights equal to those of citizens of host countries.
They also highlighted the importance of fighting hate speech directed at immigrants and refugees, which often has wider impact, the stigma attached to people with disabilities, of having a social protecting policy that focuses on basic rights, of reviewing plans and resetting priorities, especially in the field of economy and health care, and of paying more attention to the groups the pandemic had greatest impact on.