'Coronavirus is dangerous, but hunger is more so': Afghan refugees in Pakistan seek help.


KARACHI: Nestled on the northern outskirts of Karachi is a dusty, sprawling locality with limited access to healthcare and basic sanitation which is home to nearly 250,000 Afghan refugees who were forced from their country by a lingering conflict.

Piles of garbage, sewage gushing from choked gutters and unclean water, which often causes diarrhea and other waterborne diseases in children, have turned it into a distressingly impoverished neighbourhood even by Karachi's standards.

It is commonly known as an Afghan Basti (town), where extended families jam into small mud and concrete houses and even in tarpaulin shelters, making social distancing impossible. In addition, a lack of water and sanitation products make this neglected neighbourhood a perfect breeding ground for contagion.

But the people here are more worried about food rather than the formidable novel coronavirus, which has already infected and killed hundreds of thousands across the globe.

Apart from the government, scores of local and international non-governmental organisations (NGOs) are trying to provide food and rations to the inhabitants of the impoverished localities in the country of over 200 million people, but these refugees are rarely a priority.

Karachi is home to more than 300,000 Afghan refugees, most of whom work as labourers or own small shops mainly in Pashtun-dominated areas. But a crippling lockdown that the government imposed late last month in a bid to stem the spread of the coronavirus, known as Covid-19, has left tens of thousands of refugees jobless.

"The coronavirus is dangerous, but hunger is more so. That's what we are more worried about," Haji Abdullah, a leader of Afghan refugees, told Anadolu Agency.

"If you ask about masks and sanitisers here, people will talk about food, which is their top need."

There are around 2.8 million documented and undocumented Afghan refugees living in Pakistan, making it the largest refugee population in the world after the Syrians in Turkey.

Only around half of the refugees are registered, with the rest to live without documents, mostly in northeastern Khyber Pakhtunkhwa and southwestern Balochistan provinces which border war-infested Afghanistan.

Southern Sindh province, of which Karachi is the capital, also hosts 500,000 Afghan refugees.

According to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), more than 3.8 million refugees have been repatriated to Afghanistan since 2002, but many returned to Pakistan due...

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