'Coronavirus is dangerous, but hunger is more so': Afghan refugees in Pakistan seek help

Updated April 03, 2020

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A mother and her son stand outside their tent in a slum, during a lockdown amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Karachi on April 2, 2020. — Reuters
A mother and her son stand outside their tent in a slum, during a lockdown amid the outbreak of the coronavirus disease in Karachi on April 2, 2020. — Reuters

Nestled on the northern outskirts of Karachi is a dusty, sprawling locality with limited access to healthcare and basic sanitation which is home to nearly 250,000 Afghan refugees who were forced from their country by a lingering conflict.

Piles of garbage, sewage gushing from choked gutters and unclean water, which often causes diarrhea and other waterborne diseases in children, have turned it into a distressingly impoverished neighbourhood even by Karachi's standards.

It is commonly known as an Afghan Basti (town), where extended families jam into small mud and concrete houses and even in tarpaulin shelters, making social distancing impossible. In addition, a lack of water and sanitation products make this neglected neighbourhood a perfect breeding ground for contagion.

But the people here are more worried about food rather than the formidable novel coronavirus, which has already infected and killed hundreds of thousands across the globe.

Apart from the government, scores of local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are trying to provide food and rations to the inhabitants of the impoverished localities in the country of over 200 million people, but these refugees are rarely a priority.

Karachi is home to more than 300,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom work as labourers or own small shops mainly in Pashtun-dominated areas. But a crippling lockdown that the government imposed late last month in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, has left tens of thousands of refugees jobless.

"The coronavirus is dangerous, but hunger is more so. That’s what we are more worried about,” Haji Abdullah, a leader of Afghan refugees, told Anadolu Agency.

"If you ask about masks and sanitisers here, people will talk about food, which is their top need.”

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, making it the largest refugee population in the world after the Syrians in Turkey.

Only around half of the refugees are registered, with the rest to live without documents, mostly in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces which border war-infested Afghanistan.

Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, also hosts 500,000 Afghan refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3.8 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many returned to Pakistan due to ongoing violence, unemployment and a lack of education and medical facilities.

Depression

"This lockdown is increasing depression among us, especially youths. Their work has already dried up, and rations are depleting. But neither the government nor the NGOs care about us," said a visibly emotional Abdullah.

Rahamat Wali, an Afghan refugee who runs a grocery business in Peshawar shared a similar tale.

"The lockdown has badly affected our businesses. For the last nine days, our shops remained closed, causing not only financial damage but leaving thousands jobless," Wali told Anadolu Agency.

He has sent several of his employees back to their homes located in different parts of Peshawar.

"We had no other option but to send them home. People like me can bear the brunt of the lockdown for a few weeks, but how would these poor people do that?”

Abdul Wahid Afkari, a fruit seller from Islamabad, is another hard-hit victim of the lockdown.

"I sell fruits on a handcart at a fruit market in Rawalpindi. But for the last seven days, I have been at home as the market is closed," said Afkari, a father of four.

"I buy and sell fruits the same day. I have a limited amount to run my business. If I continue to stay home for some more days, that money will be exhausted and I will have no resources to continue my business, which is my only source of income."

"I request the government and the charities to remember us in this difficult time. Like other poor Pakistanis, we too need their help in this critical time when the whole city is closed and we have no other source to arrange food for our families," he said.

No discrimination

The government has requested the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) to contribute to rationing for the Afghan refugees, particularly those living in 52 shelter camps across the country.

"It is earnestly requested that keeping in view of our national policies and our commitment to Afghan refugees, the provisioning for essential rations/food supplies during the lockdown period be arranged on an urgent basis," Shehryar Afridi, the state minister for border affairs, said in a letter to the UNHCR.

Shehryar, with the help of the Shahid Afridi Foundation — an NGO run by cricket star Shahid Afridi — is distributing rations among the Afghan refugees in different parts of the country.

"Pakistan is playing a role, but this is a gigantic challenge to provide food and rations to the refugees. It is high time for the UN and the prosperous world to come forward to meet the food and other requirements of Afghan refugees, whose majority is daily wagers," the state minister told Anadolu Agency.

"Around 80 per cent of the world's total refugees are being hosted by countries like Turkey, Pakistan, Iran and Bangladesh," Shehryar noted.

"Now it's the duty of the prosperous First World to join hands with us to meet their basic requirements at this critical juncture."

He said Prime Minister Imran Khan had directed the authorities concerned to come up with an exclusive relief package for the Afghan refugees in Pakistan.

Iain Hall, the UNHCR’s deputy representative in Pakistan, said the agency was in contact with all of the relevant ministries to provide assistance regarding health, water and sanitation and risk communication to the Afghan refugees in this trying time.

He acknowledged that the agency was not providing rations to the Afghan refugees but had dispatched medical supplies and sanitation products in support of refugees and host communities across the country.

"We are in constant contact with the government and doing whatever we can to support the government's response to the Covid-19 pandemic," Hall told Anadolu Agency.

He said neither the government nor the agency had "prioritised" any section of Pakistani society to provide aid.

"All the people in Pakistani society, including the Afghan refugees, are equal to us. There is no discrimination either from our part or from the government," he said, adding the agency had recently donated five ambulances to the KP government to support its fight against the coronavirus outbreak.

Abdullah, the refugees' leader, however, accused the UNHCR and other international bodies of not taking the issue seriously.

"I personally contacted the UNHCR people in Islamabad, who said they are looking into the matter."

"I asked [them] how long would they continue to just look into the matter. Until everything will be finished?"