The challenges faced by Afghan refugees in light of the COVID-19 pandemic

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues to dominate news headlines and impact the lives of people around the world, governments, communities and individuals are all having to adapt to new restrictions being imposed to combat the spread of the virus. The outbreak of the virus is causing devastation and uncertainty throughout the world, as both developed and developing nations alike, struggle to contain the spread of the disease. However, along with the health impacts, further concern is being raised over the socio-economic effects of the virus, as travel restrictions and the implementation of lockdowns have caused huge impacts on economies and employment.

Such concerns regarding the potential impact of the pandemic on both health and socio-economic status, have been expressed in particular in relation to one of the largest protracted refugee populations in the world, Afghan refugees. Numerous voices have stated their fears for the safety of displaced Afghan people in Pakistan, Iran and internally within Afghanistan itself, whilst major apprehension has been raised over the dangers of Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan during the outbreak of the virus.

The Afghan refugee crisis

Afghan refugees represent one of the longest-displaced populations in the world, as over four decades ago, huge numbers of Afghan people started to flee from the conflict and instability that had begun to consume the country after the Soviet Invasion in December 1979. Since then, continual periods of instability and violence have led to numerous generations of Afghan people looking for safety and security elsewhere, as the decades following the Soviet Invasion were dominated by conflict, including the civil war and the rise of the Taliban.

As a result of these various phases of conflict, there are now almost 2.5 million registered refugees from Afghanistan. Yet there are many more than have not been registered or who are currently seeking asylum. Although Afghan refugees are now living in more than 70 countries around the world, almost 95% of them reside in Afghanistan’s neighbouring countries of Iran and Pakistan. Pakistan currently hosts approximately 1.4 million registered , and a further estimated one million unregistered, Afghan refugees. Iran hosts the second largest population of approximately 1 million Afghan refugees, and a further 800,000 undocumented Afghans. A considerable number of these Afghan refugees in both Pakistan and Iran are second or third generation.

Challenges facing Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran due to COVID-19

As a result of the outbreak of COVID-19, particular concern has been raised over the millions of Afghan refugees living in Iran and Pakistan. The majority of Afghan refugees live in high density urban areas and refugee settlements, in which many reside in overcrowded conditions, and have limited access to healthcare and hygiene infrastructure. Consequently, the potential risk of a devastating outbreak amongst communities of Afghan refugees is very high.

An example of a location particularly susceptible to a potential outbreak is Karachi, Pakistan, which hosts approximately 250,000 Afghan refugees, many of whom live in impoverished neighbourhoods and refugee settlements in the northern outskirts of the city. In this region, large families live in cramped conditions which makes social distancing unattainable, and there is a significant lack of adequate water and sanitation facilities. Therefore, the conditions of these settlements are ideal for a potential outbreak of the virus.

There are also a multitude of fears for Afghan refugees in Pakistan and Iran which go far beyond health. Fears about the impact of the virus on the ability for refugees to work and access food have been widely expressed. In both countries, the majority of Afghan refugees work as labourers, whilst many others manage small business such as shops.

However, as a result of various levels of lockdown and restrictions imposed in both countries to combat the spread of the virus, such work has stopped, which has left significant numbers of refugees jobless and without an income. This has led to many Afghan refugees in Iran and Pakistan reporting serious difficulties in fulfilling the most basic living costs of food and accommodation, as well as paying medical expenses.

© Getty Images/AFP/H.Hashimi

Challenges facing Afghanistan

Further apprehension has been stated over the potential consequences of Afghan refugees returning to Afghanistan from the aforementioned countries. Their return brings the possibility of increasing the spread of the virus throughout the country that continues to be afflicted by instability and violence.

This is one of the main worries expressed by the UNHCR, as huge numbers of Afghan refugees have begun to return from Iran and Pakistan, due to fears of the spread of the virus and loss of employment. Thousands have already returned from Pakistan, whilst in March alone, over 60,000 returned from Iran, which has been regarded as the epicentre of the outbreak in South-West Asia. Even now despite travel restrictions, many continue to cross the borders every day. Prior to the pandemic, Afghanistan had been experiencing huge numbers of refugees returning from particularly Iran in recent years, which has been largely attributed to recent political and economic issues in the country.

However, in light of the COVID-19 pandemic, the huge influx of people returning risks overwhelming Afghanistan’s already fragile health care system and social services. Some experts have declared that the wave of returning refugees and labourers, who are returning untested and unmonitored and then dispersing throughout the country using public transportation, is threatening an already complex health and security situation.

This fear has been partly justified by the fact that the majority of confirmed cases of COVID-19 have been recorded in the Western Herat Province, which shares a border with Iran and acts a transit point for many of those returning. This included the first case of COVID-19 in Afghanistan which was recorded on 24th February, when a recently deported Afghan asylum-seeker from Iran revealed symptoms. Since then, the virus has spread to other parts of the country, leading to 1,092 confirmed cases and 36 fatalities. However public health experts believe that the more accurate figures could be much greater.

© REUTERS/Charlotte Greenfield


In light of the challenges facing Afghan refugees, the governments of Afghanistan, Pakistan and Iran, as well as numerous refugee agencies and humanitarian organisations have raised their concerns for Afghan refugees and have outlined various responses. This has been exemplified by the UNHCR who have issued a major call to the international community to not forget Afghanistan and its neighbours during the coronavirus pandemic, as they made an urgent appeal for funds of US$ 315 million required for the Afghan situation.

The UNHCR has also stated how it has adapted its own operations in Pakistan and Iran, as the agency has distributed essential medical supplies to national health services, and hygiene and sanitation products to refugee communities. In Afghanistan, the UNHCR is helping to support the government in its prevention efforts through awareness-raising in the most vulnerable communities, and by distributing protective equipment for government workers. The agency also claims that they are in the process of providing hygiene kits for returnees and displaced communities, and of expanding the construction of water and sanitation facilities.

The government in Pakistan has recently warned the international community of a developing humanitarian crisis for Afghan refugees resident in the country, as they announced the introduction of a special relief package in recent weeks.. Whilst according to the UNHCR, relevant government departments are being directed to include both refugees and internally displaced people in relief and response measures. Within Iran, the government has confirmed that COVID-19 related tests and treatment are free of charge for refugees, and that the country’s Universal Public Health Insurance has been extended for refugees, meaning access to healthcare for all refugees will be uninterrupted during the pandemic.


Even prior to the COVID-19 pandemic, there had been recent reiterated calls to increase support for Afghan refugees, however these calls have now become even more significant, as the pandemic brings many more to challenges to both Afghanistan and the countries hosting their displaced populations. The need for support and funding from the international community is greatly emphasised, in order to help Afghan refugees in countries like Pakistan and Iran, and those who have returned to Afghanistan. Yet for those in Afghanistan there are further challenges, as clashes between Afghan forces and Taliban militants are still occurring. Therefore, the need for peace talks has become even more crucial, in order to reduce any disruption to the delivery of food or medical supplies during this unprecedented time.

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