Expert analysis

03 December 2020

During disaster displacement, people with disabilities are too often forgotten

On International Day of Persons with Disabilities we explain how people with disabilities can be disproportionately affected in disaster situations and why we need more disability-inclusive approaches to internal displacement. 

A disturbing finding emerged during the Great East Japan Earthquake in 2011: people with physical, mental, or intellectual disabilities were twice as likely to die in the earthquake than the general population. For people with disabilities who managed to reach evacuation centres, inaccessible facilities and a lack of information and medication meant their needs were often unmet. Some had no choice but to abandon the centres and seek assistance elsewhere.  

In displacement settings across the globe the needs of people with disabilities are still largely overlooked.

Nearly a decade after the disaster, there have been signs of progress. Yet, in displacement settings across the globe the needs of people with disabilities are still largely overlooked, often with severe consequences.  

How many people with disabilities are internally displaced by disasters?  

Around one billion people or 15% of the globe’s population are estimated to be living with a disability, according to the World Health Organization. However, figures on the number of people with disabilities living in internal displacement because of disasters are widely lacking.  

IDMC estimates that 5.1 million people were still displaced due to disasters at the end of 2019, but this figure is considered to be highly conservative. The limited data collected following disasters and the scarcity of data disaggregated by disability-status makes it difficult to ascertain how many internally displaced people (IDPs) are living with disabilities and where they are located. Stigmatisation, accessibility issues and overly narrow definitions can render IDPs with disabilities even more invisible during data collection and as a result they are often under-identified.  

In some cases, the prevalence of disabilities could be higher amongst displaced populations than the general population for various reasons, including lack of access to quality healthcare and other essential services. In Afghanistan, which recorded the highest number of people still displaced by disasters at the end of 2019, 17% of displaced households were headed by someone with a disability, according to a multi-sector needs assessment. New injuries sustained during disasters can also contribute to elevated rates of IDPs with disabilities. For instance, over 300,000 people were injured and 4,000 amputations were performed during the 2010 earthquake in Haiti, which displaced some 1.5 million people.  

In other cases, however, the prevalence of disabilities could be lower amongst displaced populations, particularly where people with disabilities are left behind in their community of origin or do not survive the disaster.  

What challenges do they face in displacement?    

Despite significant knowledge gaps, the evidence available suggests that people with disabilities are too often excluded from early-warning systems and evacuation processes, which may prevent them from fleeing a disaster in a safe and timely manner. In a study on Tropical Cyclone Pam, which hit Vanuatu in 2015, 60% of people with disabilities reported a lack of safety information on what to do in an emergency before the cyclone, compared to 47% of people without. In an assessment after Cyclone Amphan struck Bangladesh in May 2020, 71% of people reporting “a lot of difficulties” or “cannot do at all” with regards to their hearing, said early warning systems were not accessible, while 90% of people who reported “a lot of difficulties” or “cannot do at all” related to walking or climbing stairs, said evacuation centres and/or their toilet facilities were inaccessible.

People with disabilities also face a greater risk of being separated from their usual carers and assistive devices while fleeing, which could exacerbate their vulnerabilities during displacement. Following the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami, concerns emerged that many people with disabilities in India, including children with intellectual disabilities, were left destitute after being separated from family members, who had previously provided financial support and care. In addition to facing barriers in accessing livelihoods, healthcare, and education, people with disabilities displaced during the 2011 famine in Somalia are reported to be at risk of forced evictions, violence and exploitation, which could hinder their ability to find durable solutions to their displacement.  

How can we foster more inclusive approaches?   

The 2015 Sendai Framework calls for a disability perspective to be integrated into disaster management, and tools and guidance already exist to support actors to foster more inclusive approaches to displacement. In countries like Kenya and the Philippines, steps have been taken to enhance early warning systems and training on disability-inclusive shelter arrangements. In Japan, people with disabilities were actively involved in improving the design of disaster management after the 2011 earthquake and those facing protracted displacement were prioritised for public housing. In Bangladesh, targeted livelihood support was provided to people with disabilities in flood-prone areas, which enabled them to buy materials to raise the level of their houses and protect their water supplies, thereby reducing their risk of displacement.    

In order to inform such efforts and assess the inclusivity of responses, better data on IDPs with disabilities is essential. IDMC is committed to bridging this knowledge gap and, as a first step, plans to publish a dedicated paper on people with disabilities in the context of disaster displacement in early 2021, as background information for the Global Report on Internal Displacement.  

The impacts of climate change and people’s growing exposure and vulnerability to hazards are expected to increase the risk of displacement due to slow- and sudden-onset disasters in the years to come. Now is the time to act to ensure that those who may be most affected are no longer the most forgotten.