HISTORICALLY, global health crises have disproportionately impacted vulnerable groups in any population. Such groups, including women, children, and daily-wage workers, are often poorly positioned to utilise the resources the government marshals and less insulated from the effects of the crisis. But, as part of mainstream polity, they are included in any governmental calculus when developing responses to such outbreaks. Refugees and migrant workers, however, often operate on the peripheries of society, and do not figure much in either public consciousness or state deliberations.
Pakistan is host to some 2.4 million Afghan refugees, but it has not ratified either the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. Regardless, it remains bound by a tripartite agreement executed with Afghanistan and UNHCR in 2003, which while facilitating repatriation, accords Afghan refugees rights and privileges.
In addition to the 2003 tripartite agreement, Pakistan is also bound by norms of customary international law relating to the treatment and protection of refugees, including the principle of non-refoulement which prevents the return or expulsion of a person to another state where such person would be in danger or would fear persecution. This principle has also been codified in Article 2(1) of the Convention Against Torture, ratified by Pakistan.
Pakistan has also ratified all other major human rights conventions extending political, civil, economic, and social protections to all individuals, including refugees, residing under its control. Equal treatment under the law, and the principle of non-discrimination, is also enshrined in UN Charter and many foundational human rights conventions. Thus, as long as an individual — whether or not a citizen of Pakistan — abides within the territory of and under the control of the Pakistani state, they are entitled to certain international legal protections. This position was confirmed by the International Court of Justice in its 2004 Advisory Opinion, where it held that Israel was legally bound to accord these human rights to those persons residing in land not belonging to it but yet under its overall control and jurisdiction.
Pakistan cannot afford to neglect its refugee population.
Most refugees in Pakistan are not entitled to citizenship. The status of the children of refugees born in Pakistan also remains ambiguous. In this vulnerable state, the refugee population in Pakistan finds itself either close to or below the poverty line, living in slums and reliant on the daily wages they earn through unskilled manual labour. These conditions are further exacerbated by societal xenophobia and adverse treatment and discrimination at the hands of police, who often arrest refugees for alleged violations of the Foreigners Act, 1946.
In response to the pandemic, Pakistan has mobilised its resources to safeguard its citizenry and contain the crisis, but refugees living in Pakistan are being excluded from these protective measures, and the restrictions imposed by the government to contain the spread of the infection is preventing daily-wage labour, including refugees, from earning a livelihood. Refugees violating governmental lockdown orders in order to feed their families face discrimination or hostility at the hands of law enforcement. Where the government has been working to offer financial relief to its citizens, including launching the Ehsaas programme, it has taken no such measures to offer similar assistance to its resident refugee population.
Denied access to regular public schooling and often excluded from public health awareness programmes, refugees in Pakistan are ignorant of both their rights and health and safety protocols, thus becoming more susceptible to not just contracting the infection but also spreading it in the densely populated katchi abadis they live in. If such a refugee community becomes a cluster for the novel coronavirus, the resultant impact and subsequent spread would be difficult to contain and would further strain the government’s resources.
In these testing times, the relevant governmental stakeholders — the ministries of national health services, the interior, human rights, states and frontier regions (including its commissionerate for Afghan refugees) — must collaborate with international institutions such as the WHO and UNHCR to directly address the concerns of the refugee population.
The government must include the latter within the ambit of its economic and healthcare support initiatives and, drawing upon the UNHCR’s expertise, make available to them medical aid, hygiene kits, technical assistance, as well as training for community health workers. In this hour of need, it is crucial that we do not neglect them; neglecting these vulnerable persons would threaten our own social and national health too. A pandemic like Covid-19 will not discriminate between citizens and refugees.
The writer is former legal adviser to Pakistan’s foreign ministry, and faculty, Lums Law School.
Published in Dawn, April 19th, 2020