Coronavirus – Now is not the time to forget Afghanistan and its neighbours
UNHCR, the UN Refugee Agency, urges greater support to Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran in the context of the COVID-19 pandemic, warning that leaving Afghans and their host communities behind will have a far-reaching and negative impact on global efforts to fight the virus.
The coronavirus poses a very great threat to developing nations. An outbreak would put extraordinary strain on already fragile local health-care services and likely result in avoidable suffering and death.
As the race against time continues globally, UNHCR appeals to the international community to boost solidarity with all three countries, and have at this critical time to prevent a larger-scale outbreak of the coronavirus among the most vulnerable communities.
Despite persistent risks and insecurity, Afghans continue to return from both Iran and Pakistan. Tens of thousands of Afghan citizens have crossed over from Pakistan to Afghanistan since the temporary re-opening of the border last week. From Iran, while the number of Afghans nationals returning peaked at some 60,000 in March, around 1,500 individuals are currently returning every day.
Afghanistan faces the prospect of overwhelmed medical and social services, with a dramatic increase in Afghans returning home, hundreds of thousands of people living in displacement sites and rising poverty levels.
Pakistan and Iran, which host some 90 per cent of the world’s 2.7 million Afghan refugees are experiencing immense strain on their health systems and economies. Lockdown measures and a sharp downturn in economic activity have left many Afghan refugees confronted with an inability to meet even their most basic needs.
For Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan, the impacts of COVID-19 go far beyond health. In both countries, those who are employed are commonly hired as daily labourers.
Amidst various levels of lockdown across the region, such work has abruptly ceased and refugees with no income and their hosts are now faced with economic threats to their survival.
Afghans in Iran and Pakistan widely report serious difficulties in paying medical expenses and meeting the most basic living costs of food and accommodation, leading to many being forced to borrow money.
Over the last month, Iran’s State Welfare Organization has reported a very sharp increase in the number of requests for psychosocial support related to COVID-19 in domestic contexts – a critical trend that is being noticed in other COVID-19 affected countries around the world.
All three Governments are making concerted and commendable efforts to include displaced people in national plans and responses, but desperately need international support.
The Government of the Islamic Republic of Iran, facing the epicentre of the outbreak in South-West Asia, has facilitated exemplary inclusion of Afghans on its territory. UNHCR welcomes Iran’s recent confirmation that COVID-19 related tests and treatment are free of charge for all individuals, including for refugees. Additionally, the country’s Universal Public Health Insurance has been automatically extended for refugees as well as Iranian nationals – ensuring uninterrupted access to healthcare for all refugees.
In Pakistan, relevant departments have also been directed to include both refugees and internally displaced people in relief and response measures.
In all three countries, UNHCR is adapting our operations constantly to these unique circumstances.
UNHCR has temporarily suspended supporting voluntary returns of refugees from Iran and Pakistan in an attempt to limit the risk of refugees and staff contracting the virus.
In Afghanistan, UNHCR is supporting the Government’s prevention efforts through awareness-raising in the most vulnerable communities and priority areas of return. Speakers mounted atop cars and trucks drive through towns and villages to spread accurate and reliable information that will save lives.
UNHCR is also helping the government better manage the flow of people into Afghanistan through hiring additional staff to boost the teams at the border and improving reception facilities allowing for more space. UNHCR has provided masks, disinfectants and other protective gear to government officials working at the border and in the communities so that they can protect themselves against the spread of COVID-19.
We are in the process of procuring more hygiene kits to be distributed among returnees and displaced communities as well as for the frontline staff of government institutions and our partners; scaling up the construction of water and sanitation facilities and further enhancing support for border surveillance and returnee monitoring in Afghanistan.
In Iran, UNHCR has airlifted essential medicines, medical equipment and personal protective equipment to support and strengthen national health services. To address the critical and urgent lack of hygiene materials in Iran, UNHCR has also distributed soap and disposable paper towels to some 7,500 refugee households living in refugee settlements across the country, whose living situations in close-quarters make then more vulnerable to COVID-19. More airlifts are expected in the coming weeks.
UNHCR has increased its capacity at Afghanistan’s borders to Iran to better be able to support tracking and contact tracing of individuals. Psychosocial support services continue to operate via phone.
In Pakistan, renewed emphasis has been placed on water and sanitation projects. UNHCR has provided 10 fully equipped ambulances and 28 large housing unit facilities to the provincial health departments and disaster management authorities in Balochistan, Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and Punjab. Medical equipment and sanitation products are also being distributed to rural health facilities in support of refugees and their host communities.
More support is desperately needed for Afghanistan, Iran and Pakistan as part of collective efforts to combat COVID-19 worldwide. Despite the work being done across the subregion, the risk of the pandemic become unmanageable is now acute.
UNHCR’s funding appeal of some US$315 million required for the Afghan situation is merely 17 per cent funded.
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