No entry: exploring disability and migration

Dr Nicola Burns, Researcher at Institute of Health and Wellbeing, University of Glasgow, UK

Over the past two years I have been working on an EU funded project into migration and health, specifically focusing on cross-cultural communication in primary care consultations (see At first glance, a long way away from my research interests in disability studies and risk. Working on this project has however provided me with an opportunity to consider the intersection of disability and migration. Disabled people and migrants represent significant minorities throughout the globe (IOM, 2012; WHO, 2011).

Migration is a global phenomenon with an estimated 216 million migrants across the world, with a third residing in WHO European Region. It is unknown how many migrants are disabled, but taking recent estimates on prevalence of disability, it is not unreasonable to assume that between 10-15% of migrants are disabled. The intersection of disability and migration is complex and to an extent unknown. Both designations hide extremely diverse and heterogeneous populations with a range of capabilities and possibilities.  Both groups face structural and systemic barriers to asserting and realising their rights to participate in society. While disabled people have seen an increasing recognition of their rights to participate fully in society; migrants face increasing restrictions in this regard. A key aspect for both groups is the issue of citizenship.  Arguably, while disabled people have seen a formal recognition of their rights to participate fully in society in some countries; migrants face increasing restrictions in this regard. Both face challenges in their ability to realise citizenship rights, however defined. At the international level, a language of rights is utilised for both groups, this is dependent upon state interpretation and practices.

Everyone desires a better life for themselves and their families. For some, this involves moving city, for others this can involve moving country and every year millions of people migrate seeking opportunities to realise their dreams.  Migrants respond to a range of push and pull factors in their decision to migrate: war, freedom of thought and expression, economic necessity, professional opportunities, quality of life, study and family reunification. Over the past decade the numbers of people moving throughout the world has increased and diversified to such an extent that Vertovec describes us as living in an age of superdiversity ‘distinguished by a dynamic interplay of variables among an increased number of new, small, scattered multiple origins, transnationally connected, socio-economically differentiated and legally stratified immigrants’ (2007: 1024).

Migration can be seen as a key aspect of social transformation in society today (Castles, 2010). Yet many countries construct migration and certain types of migrants, as a problem. Immigration policies are by their very nature normative, seeking to ensure that migrants will ‘integrate’ into their host society and be ‘productive’. Kostakopoulou argues that the notion of integration has shifted from being one concerned with equality and social inclusion to one which is principally about the preservation of national norms and values, conditional on socio-political membership (2010: 1). Similarly, productivity is understood in a narrow sense, invariably tied to economic value. Disabled people represent one such group who, through formal policies, are designated as a problem migrant. The rights of disabled people to enjoy the same rights as non disabled people are ratified by a number of countries through the United Nation Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (UNCRPD).

However, questions have been raised over the upholding of Article 18 Liberty of movement and nationality in several countries. The immigration policies of countries point to a view of disabled people as being  incapable of contributing to a host country, in either a restrictive economic sense, or socially and culturally.  Such a view arises from a conception of disability well known and fought against within disability studies: the questioning of the intrinsic worth of every human being.  For example, the UK in signing the UNCRPD has reservation around Article 18 enabling them to retain the ability to refuse entry on the basis of health status. Following a review by the UK Borders Agency, this has been challenged by the Equality and Human Rights Commission who have argued that this goes against Article 5 of the UNCRPD and the principle of non discrimination. Further in the UK recent changes to immigration law requiring migrants to be in receipt of a minimum income of £18,600 will differentially impact on disabled people and their families, given that families with a disabled member often have lower household income. Similarly, the health requirement for visa applicants seeking to reside in Australia is such that many disabled people will fail to meet it (Disability Rights Now, 2012). Such policies not only deny individuals but families and communities the right to seek a better life, and impact not only materially on disabled people but are a form of psycho-emotional disablism undermining the worth of individuals (Reeve, 2012).

While we can point to the ways in which migration policy seeks to exclude disabled people, disabled migrants are a hidden population (SCOPE, 2012), with their views and the structural forces which shape their experiences of the migration process and their lives in their new countries unclear. Does the migration process itself produce impairment and disability? Does the interaction of migration policy with health or employment policy result in increasing impairment amongst groups? For example the increasing criminalisation of undocumented migration excludes individuals from healthcare systems which may result in illness and impairment. Migrants are often working in poor and hazardous working conditions, a situation highlighted recently in Qatar and the construction of football stadia, with migrant workers sustaining injuries resulting in impairment and death (Booth et al, 2013). More recently in the UK the notion of the ‘benefit migrant’ has been used to question who gains access to the ‘vulnerable’ welfare state. The intersection of structural forces such as socioeconomic inequalities, racism, sexism and disablism in the lives of migrants has begun to be explored in disability studies (see Soldatic et al 2012). Disability rights activists and scholars all have a role to play in unearthing and challenging multiple and intersecting forms of oppression such as those experienced by disabled migrants and asserting the capability and rights of all to meaningfully contribute to society.


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