Older persons invisible and vulnerable in emergencies

"Emergencies affect the exercise of human rights. Older persons are disproportionately affected in these situations, yet often remain invisible," said UN Independent Expert on the rights of older persons Rosa Kornfeld-Matte.

A man sits among the rubble as people salvage belongings after an earthquake in Pakistan. Humanitarian efforts often overlook the needs of older persons, a report states. © BILAWAL ARBAB/EPA

Kornfeld-Matte made her statement while presenting her report to the Human Rights Council. The report looks at the human rights of older persons in emergency situations, while making some suggestions to improve access.

Emergency situations – whether caused by natural disasters or conflict – aggravate many of the already existing human rights concerns facing older persons. Vulnerabilities such as reduced mobility, health problems, disability and the care of other family members are challenges for older persons when trying to access humanitarian aid during emergencies, Kornfeld-Matte said.

"Despite the heightened risks to which they are exposed, older persons are often less visible in the evaluation and planning process, in part because of the greater emphasis on younger age groups in humanitarian and community work," she said.

This lack of data when it comes to the number of older persons affected during emergencies is having a detrimental effect on rights and services, the report states. For example, in 2018, 68.5 million people had been forcibly displaced worldwide as a result of conflict or generalized violence. There was not data available on how many of those were older persons.

One of the few available statistics on older persons in emergencies referred to refugee populations and dates to 2017, where data shows that 3 percent of them were over 60 years of age. Kornfeld-Matted called the lack of timely data a barrier to inclusion of older persons in humanitarian action.

"In situations of forced displacement, older persons often face many obstacles to accessing social protection schemes," she said. "Seniors are usually excluded from economic recovery initiatives. Livelihood programs often have an age limit or do not recognize the skills and abilities of older persons who want to work."

Kornfeld-Matte's report makes a number of recommendations to improve services for older persons in emergencies, including: better collection and analysis of data of affected populations; consulting older persons to help identify barriers to access to assistance; ensuring non-discrimination in livelihood programmes to provide choice and options for older persons in the design of these programmes; and ensuring that older persons health care needs are reflected in any health care planning.

"In emergency situations, older persons are particularly vulnerable," she said. "It should be kept in mind that age often accentuates other forms of vulnerability or inequality – e.g. gender. When older persons do not fully exercise their rights to normal times, their vulnerability in emergency situations may increase."

1 October 2019

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