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A Crisis in the Making: The Impact of COVID-19 on IDPs and Refugees

A year has passed since Women’s Regional Network (WRN) released its Call for Action on World Refugee Day, 2019.

The Call for Action was adopted at the WRN Regional Summit on Forcible Displacement in South Asia:Why Gender Matters held on February 27 - March 1, 2019 in Kuala Lumpur, Malaysia. In line with WRN’s mandate, the Summit addressed the policy and practice gaps in meeting the specific needs of marginalized communities, internally displaced persons (IDPs), and refugees across South Asia. In present circumstances, we find that the assertions made at the summit are even more relevant to address the plight of marginalized communities.

Since its outbreak, the COVID-19 pandemic has disrupted people’s lives in extraordinary ways throughout the world. But it is more specifically playing havoc with already marginalized populations like IDPs and refugees. A recently published report by UNHCR shows that 79.5 million people were displaced by the end of 2019. However, governments across the globe do not pay heed to the plight of these displaced communities, rather they are limited in their focus to contain the spread of Covid-19 in order to minimize the loss of human lives on one hand and maintain their economies on the other.

This is particularly the case in active and former conflict zones where the government's outreach is weak. For example, despite improvement in the security situation in Pakistan’s western border region called ‘merged districts’ (former FATA), by the year 2018-19 estimates, there remain a total of 16,064 families who did not return to their homes. They continue to either live in camps or in slums around major cities in the hope of finding work since all their traditional means of livelihoods were destroyed during conflict induced displacement. COVID-19 has added much to the misery of these displaced persons because prolonged lockdowns and social distancing policies have deprived them of work opportunities in the cities as well.

Humanitarian workers echo these fears, saying that some of the world’s most vulnerable communities like IDPs, women, religious minorities and refugees, who are often made scapegoats in times of crises, are further marginalised and targeted. For example, women refugees and women IDPs in Pakistan, with no CNICs are unable to register for humanitarian aid provided during the COVID-19 crisis.

Aid workers also worry that if the virus takes hold in a marginalized community or an IDP or refugee camp, hate could whip up existing animus against the unwelcome outsiders to genocide-level proportions among the host communities. This is already witnessed in the case of Rohingya refugees being driven out of Bangladesh amidst fear of rise in crimes and violence or IDPs belonging to minority communities like Sikh IDPs in Pakistan (see WRN Pakistan Community Conversation in Punjab).

Rohingyas, for example, have also been turned away by Malaysia. Finding themselves without refuge, they are now dying of hunger malnourishment in the open. Bangladesh rescued a boat in mid-April that had drifted for weeks after failing to reach Malaysia, allowing almost 400 Rohingyas to come ashore, but more than 70 people had already died at sea.

This happened mainly because governments continue to focus on their own survival and remain unconcerned about the stateless Rohingyas or the IDP population. Ironically, the UNHCR also reports that it regularly gets only half of what it needs to fund its budget, so it had already been forced to limit services like healthcare in multiple conflict zones. Those already ignored have now become invisible.

With much of the attention being diverted to other issues these marginalized communities go unnoticed. Across multiple conflict zones, educating people in refugee camps and informal outposts of internally displaced communities across Pakistan and/or in the region on how not to catch COVID 19, both to prevent the spread of the virus and to head off an outbreak among them is the need of the hour. Besides, civil society and human rights defenders across South Asia need to make efforts not only at the regional level but also at the national level to connect to the Refugees and IDPs or Temporarily Displaced Persons (TDPs) with a particular focus on women with no or little access to the internet or related digital tools in order to make sure that they get the much needed humanitarian aid in the times of COVID-19 crisis.

This is possible only if women in leadership positions get to reach forums like the G-20 and the G-7 meetings being held this year, and before the UN Security Council. We can collectively take a stand to ensure that the issues and challenges faced by the women, refugees, IDPs and other marginalized groups in the times of COVID-19 crises are effectively highlighted and discussed at such forums.

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