SIHMA | Scalabrini Institute For Human Mobility In Africa

Disability and Migration in South Africa

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Disability inclusion and ensuring access to rights for all people with disability is critical in achieving the Sustainable Development Goals (SDGs). An estimated 1.3 billion people globally are living/experiencing a significant disability accounting for 16% of the world’s population (United Nations (UN), 2023). The Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disability (CRPD) defines persons with disabilities as “those who have long-term physical, mental, intellectual or sensory impairments, which in interaction with various barriers may hinder their full and effective participation in society on an equal basis with others.”

Various instruments have been developed to improve the lives of people with disability, facilitate their full participation and equality in all aspects of life. An example of one international framework is The UN Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD) developed in collaboration with disability organisations and people with disabilities (Pisani & Grech, 2015). The UNCRPD has shifted the perception of viewing disability as a personal problem that needs to be cured to a human rights and equality approach. The UNCRPD was developed to promote, protect, integrate and ensure the full and equal enjoyment of all human rights and fundamental freedoms by all persons with disability, and to promote respect for inherent dignity (UN, 2006). Nevertheless, persons with disability continue to face multiple challenges around the world. Millions of adults and children living with disability continue to be segregated and denied access to their rights which leads to a wretched and marginalised life (Series, 2020; Govere, Vearey & Walker, 2021; UN, 2023). This includes exclusion from access to education, health care, livelihood and other public services. This is even worse for migrants and refugees living with disability who are often overlooked in the context of disability.

Although they are national and international policies on disability, a few are cognizant of the needs of migrants and refugees with disabilities and the intersection between the two resulting in their exclusion in social welfare programming, health and rehabilitation services and human rights protection (Pisani & Grech, 2015; UNDESA, nd; Govere et al., 2021; Walton etal., 2020; Mzira, 2011). In addition, migration policies internationally do not directly integrate disability (Govere et al., 2021).  Migrants living with disability are often not accounted for in national disability service planning and delivery and their rights and voices are subjugated; futhermore, they suffer a heightened predisposition to exploitation and abuse (Piasni & Grech, 2015; Govere et al., 2021). Literature shows that migrants without disabilities, but with lower education and skill levels, have increased vulnerability to acquiring a disability through risks of exploitation (including by engaging in dangerous work) (Adhikary et al., 2017; Lewis et al., 2015; Orrenius and Zavodny, 2013; Rosano et al., 2012) and due to limited attention to their issues they are likely to experience adverse impact of disability.

According to the South African Community Survey (2016) about 7,7% of the population are living with disability. However, there are no statistics or data on how many of these are migrants and refugees (Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, 2021). Due to the death of data and information around migrants with disability, little is known about disability and migration in the country (Govere et al., 2021). In South Africa the rights of persons with disability are safeguarded by international, continental, regional and national frameworks (Walton et al., 2020; Govere et a., 2021). While these international frameworks to some extent, recognize the importance of addressing the needs of persons with disabilities, the migration component is still generally missing. Migrants and refugees with disabilities thus remain largely invisible in international and regional frameworks. Despite South Africa having signed a range of international and regional frameworks relating to migrants and refugees with disabilities, there implementation at the national level remains problematic, there are unclear guidelines on how to implement (Govere et al., 2021).

Furthermore, there are various laws such as the Constitution of the Republic of South Africa, 1996 (South Africa, Government of, 1996) which gives rights to all people in the country including migrants; Disability Rights Charter of South Africa (Disabled People South Africa, 1997) and White Paper on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (South Africa, Government, 2016)  which protects the rights of people with disabilities and the other instruments which protect the rights of migrants and refugees such as Refugees Amendment Act No. 11 of 2017 (South Africa, Government, 2017); Immigration Act No. 13 of 2002 (South Africa, Government, 2002), Draft Immigration Amendment Act 13 of 2011 (South Africa, Government of, 2011) and Commencement of the 2011 Immigration Amendment Act (South Africa, Government, 2014).  Although there are many policies or laws aimed at protecting the rights of disabled people, migrants and refugees in South Africa, there is still a clear gap between the policies and their implementation. The disability policies barely mention, or they are silent on the rights of migrants with disability and the migration policies seldom gives attention to disability among migrants and refugees. Both gives little of no acknowledgement of the intersection between migration and disability (Migration and Health Project Southern Africa, 2021). This is not only unique to South Africa, but this presents the challenge globally (Govere et al., 2021). Such a situation makes migrants and refugees living with disability more vulnerable to all forms of discrimination, human rights abuse and exclusion form education, employment, public services, social protection, or social welfare programming (Walton et al., 2020; UNDESA nd). Consequently, most migrants and refugees with disabilities living in South Africa have little choice but survive through support from NGOs, informal networks, and religious organizations (Hölscher, 2016). Undocumented migrants fear of arrest, detention, or deportation results in fear of engaging with government services thus putting them at a heightened risk.

To ensure fulfilment of rights, protection, equality, access, and participation for people living with disability including migrants and refugees, it is important to take into cognisant the barriers to the realisation of these. These include the barriers in policies and programming in considering the migrants/refugees living with disability or the intersection between the two. There is also need to generate reliable and quality data or evidence on migrants and refugees with disability, their needs and rights in order to protect, integrate and ensure their full participation in all sectors. Disability policies and programming should take into account the subgroups within the population of disabled people in order to comprehensively meet their needs, achieve the SDGs and ensure that they benefit from all public services. Irregular migrants and asylum seekers should be protected from arrest, detention, or deportation for them to engage with services available for their well-being. In advancing the realisation of human rights and the constitutional mandate of granting human rights for all the people living in South Africa, different stakeholders including policy makers, the government of South Africa, NGOs, communities, families, and other institutions should ensure migration aware and disability competent policies, programmes and services. This is essential as we celebrate this year’s Human Rights Day in South Africa.


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by Rachel Chinyakata


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