Refugee Council of Australia
Young boy with hearing aid sitting with family

Barriers and exclusions: The support needs of newly arrived refugees with a disability


Different definitions of disability have been suggested. For example, the Refugee Convention and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with a Disability (CRPD) adopt a social model of disability, which sees disability as a consequence of an environment that is organised to meet the needs of people without a disability. The CRPD states that “disability results from the interaction between persons with impairments and attitudinal and environmental barriers that hinders their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others”.

As Mary Crock explains, disability “arises from societal structures that unnecessarily isolate persons with physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments and exclude them from full participation in a community.” Under the CRPD, Australia has committed to “promote, protect and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disabilities, and to promote respect for their inherent dignity”. This commitment applies equally to everyone within Australia’s territory and jurisdiction.

The World Health Organization has estimated that approximately 15% of people around the world have a disability. If this percentage is applied to forced displacement figures from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), at least 3.4 million refugees are likely to have a disability. However, due to the nature of displacement, refugees are likely to have a higher prevalence of a disability compared to other populations. Experiences of war, torture and persecution may result in physical and psychological issues, while a lack of adequate health care, sanitation and essential provisions may also see people acquire or develop a disability, or have children born with a disability.

Until 2012, people with a disability were excluded from Australia’s Refugee and Humanitarian Program. 2012 brought about a welcomed policy change that resulted in an increase in refugee and humanitarian entrants with a disability arriving in Australia. However, the exact proportion of humanitarian entrants that either arrive in Australia with a disability, or develop or acquire a disability during the arrival and settlement process, remains unknown.

Current evidence suggests that refugees with a disability are often forgotten or invisible during crises of human displacement. Additionally, they have physical, mental, sensory or intellectual impairments that, in interaction with various barriers and the world around them, hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others. People from refugee backgrounds with a disability have specific needs upon arrival that may stem from their disability status.The nature of their past experiences, journey, and complex resettlement procedures means that their health needs may also be ‘more extensive’ than most.For this group, the barriers to accessing health and social services are greater.

This report focuses on service system issues relating to newly arrived refugee and humanitarian entrants in Australia who have a disability. It will explore in detail the barriers that prevent newly arrived refugees with a disability from being fully included in Australian society. Humanitarian entrants to Australia with a disability find it difficult to navigate, access and utilise mainstream and disability support systems. Without essential support to access services, this cohort of people is likely to fall through system gaps. This significantly hinders their settlement, social and economic participation, and full inclusion in Australian society.

In addition, this report features key issues identified by service providers working with newly arrived refugees with a disability. The report also draws from the experiences of Australians with a disability from refugee backgrounds, their families and carers. These concerns have been directly expressed by service providers to the Refugee Council of Australia (RCOA), the National Ethnic Disability Alliance (NEDA), the Settlement Council of Australia (SCOA) and the Federation of Ethnic Communities’ Councils of Australia (FECCA), through both formal and informal consultations with service providers and community members.


Philippa Duell-Piening, ‘Refugee resettlement and the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities’ (2018) 33 Disability and Society 1.

Charles O’Mahony, ‘Legal Capacity and Detention: Implications of the UN Disability Convention for the Inspection Standards of Human Rights Monitoring Bodies’ (2012) 16 International Journal of Human Rights 883, 884.

Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities 2008, arts 1, 13.

Mary Crock, Christine Ernst, and Ron McCallum, ‘Where disability and displacement intersect: Asylum seekers and refugees with disabilities’ (2012) 24 International Journal of Refugee Law 735, 737.

World Health Organization and World Bank (eds), World Report on Disability (2011).

United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Global Trends: Forced Displacement in 2016 (19 June 2017).

Refugee Council of Australia, Australia’s Response to a World in Crisis: Community Views on Planning for the 2016-17 Refugee and Humanitarian Program (March 2016), 4.

Karen Soldatic, Kelly Somers, Amma Buckley, and Caroline Fleay, ‘‘Nowhere to be found’: Disabled refugees and asylum seekers within the Australian resettlement landscape’ (2015) 2 Disability and the Global South 501, 502.

Julie King, Niki Edwards, Ignacio Correa-Velez, Sara Hair, and Maureen Fordyce, ‘Disadvantage and disability: Experiences of people from refugee backgrounds with disability living in Australia’ (2016) 3 Disability and the Global South 844.

AMPARO, The NDIS and Culturally and Linguistically Diverse Communities: Aiming High for Equitable Access in Queensland (AMPARO Advocacy Inc, October 2016), 18.

Philippa Duell-Piening, Response to a Discussion Paper of the Victorian State Disability Plan 2017-2020 (Victorian Refugee Health Network, July 2016), 12.

Diversitat Settlement and Community Programs, Diversitat Disability Findings Report (2016), 4.

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