Older people's needs ignored in emergencies and disasters around the globe

20 February 2013

HelpAge International says humanitarian agencies and donors have failed to address the needs of older people in emergency situations around the world - despite older people being among the most vulnerable. HelpAge has chosen 20 February 2013, World Day of Social Justice, to call for better support for older people during emergency and recovery situations.

New research carried by HelpAge International - in two very different places which have been hit by disasters - confirms that the needs of older people are not being met despite the fact that they form one of the most vulnerable groups:

  • Haiti

A new Study on the Situation of Older People in Haiti being published by HelpAge International shows that, in the area of risk and disaster management, 69.8% of older persons in urban areas and 79.8% in rural areas considered that they had not received assistance during emergency responses to disasters.

  • South Sudan

A new baseline survey carried out by HelpAge International and Danish Refugee Council in the Yusuf Batil refugee camp, in Upper Nile, South Sudan, confirmed that older people were one of the most vulnerable groups. Refugees' registration data shows that although older people (over 60) made up over 4% of the camp's population of almost 37,000 people, this age group formed 12% of refugees with specific vulnerabilities and protection needs (under UNHCR guidelines) - those classed as ‘elderly at risk' forming the second largest vulnerable group after "women at risk".

Older people are amongst the most vulnerable in emergencies, yet their needs are often overlooked.[1] Despite the fact that approximately 11% of the world's population is aged 60 and above,[2] less than 1% of humanitarian aid (allocated via the CAP[3] and flash appeal process) was allocated to older people in 2010 and 2011.[4] Natural disasters have an impact on at least 200 million people a year around the world.[5] By 2050, the number of people aged 60 and over will almost triple, reaching two billion - 22% of the world's population.[6]

Richard Blewitt, Chief Executive Officer of HelpAge International, said:

"When a humanitarian crisis arises, older people are particularly vulnerable to injury, death, neglect and disease. However, the reality they face in emergencies often goes unnoticed - older people remain invisible in crises. They are often unable to travel to the relative safety of a displacement camp or they may be left behind to look after small children and disabled relatives.

"Governments must do much more to tackle the inequality that hampers humanitarian efforts and to ensure that older people start off on a solid footing with support for their unique needs. A comprehensive response requires awareness from all organisations - including UN agencies, international NGOs, political leaders and policy experts. We need to include older people in all of our programs so they can actively participate in planning and explain their needs to camp and government authorities. While older people need targeted support, they also offer wisdom and experience that is vital to recovery."

Haiti earthquake

On 12 January 2010, Haiti was hit by a magnitude 7.0 earthquake that left a large area around Port-au-Prince devastated. 222,000 people died, more than 300,000 were seriously injured and 1.5 million people instantly became homeless and moved into hundreds of camps. HelpAge International believes that amongst the 3.5 million affected, 200,000 were older people. Three years after the earthquake, thousands of people are still living in camps in appalling conditions.

Roger, a 66-year-old Haitian fishermen and carpenter who in 2008 had a stroke which left him partially paralysed down one side, said:

"When the earthquake happened I was in the outside latrine. A huge hole appeared in the wall and I saw another wall near me collapse. I held on tightly to a tree trunk until the trembling stopped. My wife and children were in the house and thought that I had died because they saw collapsed houses all around them. After the earthquake we went to live in a camp and lived in a tent. While I was there, a HelpAge nurse referred me to the organisation's geriatric unit at the local hospital. Without HelpAge and the hospital staff, me and my friends here, we would all be dead. Nobody was doing anything to help us before."

HelpAge International is launching the UNJUST campaign - the first ever campaign focused on addressing the needs of older people affected by humanitarian emergencies - which calls for more inclusive policies for older people in emergencies (both for older people to be better supported and for them to be allowed to actively participate during emergency and recovery situations).

As the numbers of older people affected by humanitarian crises and disasters increase, humanitarian agencies need to adapt policy and practice to ensure that the needs of older people are consistently and continually considered and that this vulnerable group is no longer neglected.


Notes to Editors

1. On World Day of Social Justice, HelpAge International is launching the first ever campaign focused on addressing the needs of older people affected by humanitarian emergencies. The latest details can be found at www.helpage.org/unjust. Older campaigners and HelpAge staff on the ground will be live tweeting using the hashtag #UNJUST. To get involved, follow @helpage on Twitter, share our content and keep using the #UNJUST hashtag to make older people's needs in humanitarian crises a trending topic on Twitter!

2. Press photos of case studies from the countries taking part in today's lauch of the UNJUST campaign can be found at on Flickr.

3. HelpAge International has worked in Haiti for eight years. Three years after the earthquake of January 2010, we continue to support 200,000 older people who were affected by addressing their outstanding humanitarian needs, such as housing for people living in camps, supporting nursing homes and linking older people's associations with other NGOs to address basic needs.

4. In January 2013, HelpAge International and Danish Refugee Council carried out a baseline survey of older refugees in Yusuf Batil Camp, Upper Nile State, South Sudan. From the camp's population of 8,930 households (36,751 registered individuals) it was found that 4.4% were over 60 (1,596 older persons), however the number of vulnerable older people at risk (according to UNHCR vulnerability assessment guidelines) was found to be 12% of the total group of people with specific needs (the second largest group after women at risk). In July 2012, a preliminary vulnerability assessment carried out by Danish Refugee Council, using different criteria of assessment (with DRC classifying older people at risk as those who are alone, those who care for other young or elderly dependents, older persons with disabilities, older persons with an significant medical condition, and older women at risk), found that 40% of the vulnerable group was aged over 60 and 63% were over the age of 50 - way above the average percentage which older people represent in the overall refugee population.

5. In January this year, HelpAge International launched an initiative with the Danish Refugee Council focusing on the protection of older refugees in Yusuf Batil camp where 110,000 refugees have crossed the border from Sudan during the last 12 months. It is expected that a total of 1,363 older people and 6,000 dependents in Yusuf Batil camp will benefit directly from this partnership. Besides working directly with refugees, the partners will also sensitise other humanitarian agencies on the ground to issues of ageing and displacement.

6. The UNJUST campaign calls for more inclusive policies for older people in emergencies, and its launch is coinciding with a number of actions by Older People's Associations events in different countries taking place on 20 February 2013:

a. Haiti
Delegation from umbrella group of 13 Older People's Associations meet the representative of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (UN OCHA) to present the new HelpAge report, Study on the Situation of Older People in Haiti, and discuss older people's specific needs in emergency interventions.

b. Democratic Republic of Congo
Delegation from Mugunga Older People's Associations, Caritas, WorldVision and HelpAge International meets representatives from WFP and UNOPS.

c. Pakistan
National delegation meets the National Disaster Management Authority and OCHA representatives, Older People's Associations will hold rallies and meet their District Coordination Officers and Provincial Disaster Management authorities.

d. South Sudan
The South Sudan Older People's Organisation host a meeting in Juba with UNICEF and OCHA officials and government ministers including the minister for social development to discuss the situation in the Yusuf Batil camp. (The day will also feature a show from a local celebrity musician.)

e. Sudan
Sudanese Society in Care of Older People and representatives from OPAs meet the Humanitarian Aid commission, the Ministry of Social Welfare and OCHA to demand that the rights of older people in emergencies are recognised.

f. Kenya
Rally in Lodwar and launch of the UNJUST campaign in Nairobi at a half-day work shop for media and NGOs. A delegation of older people will meet Kenyan politicians after the new government has been formed following elections on 4 March 2013.

7. Ageing in the Twenty-First Century: A Celebration and A Challenge is a landmark report published by UNFPA and HelpAge in October 2012. It makes the case for governments, NGOs, global institutions and civil society to fully commit to a concerted global effort to realign 21st century society to fit the realities of 21st century demographics.

8. Older people are less likely to flee in times of conflict due to difficulties with travel and reluctance to leave home, land, and possessions. Many are unable able to travel to health facilities, stand in queues for food distributions, carry heavy packages of food or containers of water, or compete with younger people for relief supplies - yet their needs are overlooked.

9. Older people are often not cared for within their families. For example, following the 2010 floods in Pakistan, around 10% of the older population was living without family support and in the camps for internally displaced people in Darfur, half of older people live alone.

10. Older people are not monitored in emergencies and they are not prioritised despite evidence of higher risk of death and disease. Furthermore, there are considerable gaps in knowledge and research about the needs of older people in emergencies.

About HelpAge International

HelpAge International helps older people claim their rights, challenge discrimination and overcome poverty, so that they can lead dignified, secure, active and healthy lives. Our work is strengthened through our global network of like-minded organisations - the only one of its kind in the world.

For further information

Please contact Attila Kulcsar at HelpAge International's office in London on +44 (0) 20 7148 7623 (mobile: +44 (0) 7713 567624 or email akulcsar@helpage.org)

1 HelpAge International 2012, ‘A study of humanitarian financing for older people and people with disabilities, 2010-2011'. London.
2 Ibid.
3 http://www.unocha.org/cap/about-the-cap/about-process
4HelpAge International 2012, ‘A study of humanitarian financing for older people and people with disabilities, 2010-2011'. London.
5 Debby Guha-Sapir, Femke Vos, Regina Below, with Sylvain Ponserre 2011, ‘Annual Disaster Statistical Review 2010: The numbers and trends' http://www.cred.be/sites/default/files/ADSR_2010.pdf

6 HelpAge International 2012, ‘A study of humanitarian financing for older people and people with disabilities, 2010-2011'. London.

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