The International Paralympic Committee’s Director of Communications, Craig Spence, told ParaSport News on Thursday that they are considering a move like that of the International Olympic Committee to include a team of refugees participating under the Paralympic flag at the Rio hosted Games. “[At] the moment we are looking into it. Looking back at previous Games the number of athletes coming from what could be considered refugee countries was small. Also due to nature of their impairments, it can prove difficult for athletes to move to another country. It is something we are looking into, but currently we do not know of any athletes seeking refugee status.”
On the Olympic side, refugees from Syria, Iran and Democratic Republic of Congo are among the athletes being considered. According to an IOC statement, any athletes being given this status must meet “official refugee status verified by the United Nations, and personal situation and background.”
There is a small history of the Paralympic Games having competitors participate in the Games under the Paralympic flag. The first time was at the 1992 Summer Paralympics in Barcelona, when Yugoslavia was in the process of disolving. United Nations Security Council Resolution 757 had prevented Yugoslavia from participating at the 1992 Summer Olympics under the name “Yugoslavia”. The 3-year-old IPC followed suit, with 16 Paralympic competitors from the country competing under the Paralympic flag and their 4 gold medals, 3 silver medals and 1 bronze medal not counting in the record books for Yugoslavia or the states like Serbia and Montenegro that emerged from that conflict.
The second time was at the 2000 Games when athletics competitor Alcino Pereira and powerlifter Mateus Lukas competed as “Individual Paralympic Athletes” because Timor-Leste was not yet recognized as a sovereign state and the country’s National Paralympic Committee (NPC) was not formally recognized by the IPC.
If the International Paralympic Committee found refugee competitors to participate, it would mark the first time that an independent delegation took part that did not involve United Nations recognition and sanction issues for affected athletes.
Several NPCs are currently suspended from the IPC, including India, Costa Rica, Somalia, and Mauritania. Costa Rica’s situation involves competing organizations that claim to be the government recognized National Paralympic Committee. India’s situation involved government interference within Paralympic sport and other problems. Despite the suspension from the IPC, Costa Rica has been able to send competitors under its own flag to major international competitions. For a while, India was unable to do that and there was talk about the country’s athletes being unable to compete under the flag of India at the 2016 Summer Paralympics. This situation appears to have resolved itself with the Sports Authority of India taking over a number of the major governance roles within Indian Paralympic sport. In recent major international competitions by IPC run sports, Indians have competed under their own flag. This includes the 2016 IPC Athletics Asia-Oceania Championships in Dubai and powerlifting’s 2016 IPC World Cup in Kuala Lumpur.
Somalia has never sent a delegation to the Paralympic Games. Mauritania made their debut at the 2000 Summer Paralympics in Sydney, when Ezouha Mint Mohamed competed in the women’s T54 100m event and Mohamed Ould Bahaida competed in the men’s 67.5+ kg powerlifting event. The country sent women’s track and field competitor Ezzouha Edidal to the 2004 Summer Paralympics. Mauritania sent men’s track and field competitor Sidi Mohamed Bilal and women’s track and field competitor Fatimetou Mbodj to the 2012 Games in London. A reappearance this year would almost certainly require an invitation by the IPC to do so.
It appears unlikely that the talked about Indian issue of competing under the Paralympic flag will happen, and all other countries have options. A potential refugee composed team flying under the Paralympic flag would only involve these athletes.
Some of the countries who have been at the height of the refugee crisis including Eritrea, Iraq, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, and Iran with people from these countries having acceptance rates for first time asylum applications in the last quarter of 2015 at over 45% according to the European Commission. Other nationalists with successful asylum claims percentages over 10% include Pakistan, Mali, Ukraine, Russia, Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo, Sri Lanka, Côte d’Ivoire, and China.
People of these national come from countries that tend to fall into one of two extremes inside the Paralympic movement: The country is highly successful and has sent large numbers of competitors to the Games and won many medals, or the country exists at the peripheral of the movement, sending few competitors, having an NPC that is frequently suspended and unsuspended, and where there appears to have been little development of disability sport in the country owing to internal factors. The first group includes Iraq, Iran, Russia, Ukraine and China. The second group includes Eritrea, Afghanistan, Sudan, Somalia, Pakistan, Mali, Guinea, Democratic Republic of the Congo and Côte d’Ivoire. Sri Lanka is more in the middle, with much more support happening in the lead up to and since the the 2012 Paralympic Games in London.
The Women’s Refugee Commission estimates that 7.7 million of the 51 million people world wide displaced because of conflict have some form of disability, up from 2.5 and 3.5 million people with disabilities among a displaced population of 35 million in 2010. Aid organizations often do not count or collect statistics about people with disabilities when delivering support and resources on the ground. This despite the fact that World Health Organization (WHO) estimates that 7 to 10% of the global population has a disability.
A field study by the Women’s Refugee Commission in Jordan found that 75% of refugees with disabilities were unable to prepare their own food. Among Iraqi refugees with disabilities in Jordan, 41% said they were completely unable to access health services. This contrasts with 23% who said they had access to health services specific to their disabilities.
While Article 30 of the Convention on the Rights of Persons with Disabilities (CRPD) adopted by the UN General Assembly in December 2006 guarantees “Participation in cultural life, recreation, leisure and sport”, this is rarely a concern when it comes to supporting refugees with disabilities. Providing sport opportunities for today’s refugees has not been something on the agenda for most countries with large populations of displaced people and refugees.
Inside Europe, 2016 has seen a large number of barriers, both physical and political, erected to try to stop the movement of displaced people and other immigrants. These create tremendous extra barriers for people with disabilities, as their disabilities can often limit their ability to make a long trek from one place to another to seek safety from war and life threatening political and religious conflicts. Some estimates say that one in fifteen refugees from Syria, many who have ended up in Jordan or Turkey, has having permanent disabilities as a result of the conflict with 28% of them being women. Their disabilities and need for care, while having conflict limited access to it, make leaving even more difficult. People have to develop their own solution for dealing with conditions like bed sores, pain and infections. Trying to emigrate takes away from the limited support structure they have created for themselves. Sport is not even an option.
Of the few known 2012 Paralympic competitors in conflict zones like Syria, some appear to still be competing including Shadi Issa who won bronze at the 2014 IPC Powerlifting World Championships. Syrian athletics competitor Mohamad Mohamad set a Men’s Shot Put F57 A-Qualifying distance last year in Brazil. Iraq’s Paralympians appear to be regularly on the move to stay in conflict free areas, and are being supported by regional and national disability sport organizations. Most of them appear to have tried to stay in the country.
The reality is that for most Paralympic sportspeople and potential Paralympic sportspeople in conflict zones, staying in a bad situation is often the better and safer choice. They cannot afford to leave. This means that even as the IPC is open to and willing to have a team of refugees, displaced people with disabilities cannot leave their countries. The IPC will struggle to find competitors for this, despite good intentions.