All for one and one for all
The novel coronavirus, more commonly known as COVID-19, has challenged human existence like never before. This pandemic does not discriminate, leaving everyone vulnerable. States, big and small, are feeling overwhelmed responding to an invisible threat. Even the resultant financial meltdown seems overshadowed where every effort is focused on survival. However, frequent lockdowns and social distancing have hit the daily wage worker, including millions of refugees, the most. While most of the governments are extending relief to their citizens, it is refugees who are mostly left out.
The roughly 2.7 million Afghan citizens living across Pakistan are equally vulnerable to the pandemic and its secondary implications. Like the host community, most of these refugees have lost their daily wage, making them even more vulnerable.
Around 68% of refugees reside in different urban centres, while the remaining 32% are living in 54 refugee camps, also known as refugee villages. Refugees living inside the camps can be easily approached and assisted. However, reaching out to urban refugees is quite a challenge. Data about their socio-economic status is also normally not readily available, which makes it even harder to identify the most vulnerable for immediate assistance.
The availability of accurate socio-economic data is, therefore, absolutely essential for making informed and quick decisions in times of emergencies. The use of technology for managing this data and for connecting with refugees, especially those living in urban areas, is of high importance.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees is playing a key role in protecting refugees from the effects of this pandemic. UNHCR, however, recognises only those refugees who are in possession of a POR (Proof of Registration); a document which provides proof of identity, temporary legal stay and freedom of movement for 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees living in Pakistan. Apart from massive awareness campaigns and supply of protective gears, UNHCR is also assisting the most vulnerable POR cardholders through this pandemic with a ‘Cash-Based Intervention’ (CBI) programme. The UN refugee agency is also assisting the host government with medical supplies including state-of-the-art ambulances. International donor agencies should support UNHCR further for a more effective response.
The remaining 1.3 million Afghan citizens, who are not in possession of a POR card, have still not secured any decent assistance either from the host government or any UN agency. With 70% of the caseload comprising women and children, an immediate response is needed. If left unassisted, many vulnerable refugees might fall through the cracks.
The Government of Pakistan, as well as the UN agencies, need to take stock of this fault line, since ignoring someone for lack of documents would not be a wise approach to a global pandemic which does not differentiate on any basis; ‘all for one and one for all’ must be our guiding principle.
Luckily, many local NGOs and individual local philanthropists have come to the rescue of these unassisted vulnerable refugees, reflecting a strong bond of social coexistence between the refugees and the host communities. At the same time, many refugees are at the frontline serving the host community as doctors and paramedics.
Interestingly, refugee-led organisations have also responded immediately to such vulnerable caseloads and have provided them with necessary relief and assistance. Since these organisations are from the same community, an effective and immediate response comes as an inherent strength. However, low capacities and modest financial resources make their impact limited.
Such organisations are mostly run by refugee youth; volunteerism, therefore, comes as a natural asset. The United Nations and other donor agencies need to engage such organisations, by enhancing their management skills and by giving them access to necessary funds. Acknowledging refugees as active stakeholders and involving them in decision-making regarding their future and wellbeing will help to build resilience.
Pakistan has proudly hosted millions of refugees for more than 40 years and is still doing what she can; however, assisting millions of refugees cannot be done without any meaningful global support. Both Pakistan and the UNHCR need immediate international support for managing and serving refugees more effectively.
This pandemic will be over soon; however, the world more surely will never be the same again. With a new social order in the offing, a review of the current refugee management framework becomes all the more important. A long-term rehabilitation program to offset the negative effects of this pandemic on refugees is important. Especially the women and children who are passing through these traumatic times will be needing psychosocial support to lead a normal life again. Efforts should be made to build resilience among refugee communities in preparation for such challenges in the future. Quality education, healthy environment and opportunities for a decent livelihood will ensure that refugees are able to sustain such challenges on their own.
Abbas Khan, Commissioner for Afghan Refugees in the Province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, Pakistan. I am a career civil servant with 20 years of experience in various fields of governance and policy formulation with a special focus on forced displacement and refugee youth development. I am an alumnus of the International Summer School on Forced Migration, University of Oxford. Also attended International Refugee Law Course at the International Institute of Humanitarian Law, Sanremo, Italy. I love trance music and basketball.