While the refugee crises created by the conflict in Afghanistan and the ethnic cleansing of the Rohingyas in Myanmar may appear to be disconnected, they are both part of a major migration upheaval in South Asia that the COVID-19 pandemic has only complicated. Already living on the margins of society, Afghan and Rohingya refugees have been hit particularly hard by COVID-19. Host countries and the international community need to do more to help alleviate the unique challenges that the pandemic has caused for both of these populations.
Before the pandemic, Afghan refugees in Pakistan already faced disadvantages in access to education, healthcare, banking and financial resources, and property. They have also been subjected to police brutality and arbitrary detention by security forces. While Pakistan does technically have birth right citizenship, this right has been routinely denied to the children of Afghan refugees born in Pakistan, and Prime Minister Imran Khan backed away from his original plan to revise this policy due to political backlash. Given the additional uncertainty around whether these children may be granted Afghan citizenship (many have never set foot in Afghanistan), the risk of statelessness is enormous and carries serious repercussions for the already dire legal and human rights situation faced by Afghan refugees.
The COVID-19 pandemic has only exacerbated these challenges. Though Islamabad lifted its lockdown measures, the initial shutdown caused major disruptions to the day labor sector in which many Afghans work. Restrictions on public gatherings limit already scarce economic opportunities, demonstrated by the closing of a major vegetable market in Islamabad that employed many of the Afghans residing in a nearby refugee camp. Additionally, the constant threat of deportation continues to have a profound effect on the psychological health of Afghan refugees who are now dealing with the additional anxiety of pandemic-related uncertainty. Additionally, the initial closing of key Afghanistan-Pakistan border crossings meant that asylum seekers fleeing violence in Afghanistan would find seeking refuge in Pakistan much more difficult and dangerous, making them significantly more vulnerable to human traffickers and exploitation by criminal networks.