No country is spared from the devastating health and economic impacts of COVID-19; among the most affected are the 25.9 million refugees seeking refuge in some of the world’s poorest countries with declining and failing healthcare systems. Though governments are willing to offer healthcare assistance to anyone affected by the virus to limit the spread, access to these resources remains to be a problem. Moreover, emergency relief measures and economic policies are designed to focus more on the citizens while largely overlooking the most vulnerable groups due to the discrimination in the law. The following write-up is part 1 of a 3-series article, focusing on the refugees in South Asia, specifically the Rohingyas and Afghan refugees.

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Juanita Justin

As governments around the world are trying to comprehend and manage the devastating effects of the global crisis, the gaps in the prevailing social infrastructure have never been so evident. COVID-19 is reinforcing these gaps to further ostracise the minority and refugee communities in South Asia as they fall victim to the existing structural, social and economic inequalities and exclusion systems in place. There have been widespread reports of marginalisation, stigmatisation and disinformation campaigns[1] swirling around that put these communities at a greater risk.

The Rohingya community is especially vulnerable to the present global crisis and it has further intensified their oppression as hundreds are still risking their lives at sea and fleeing to find asylum. Malaysia is once again seeing a sudden influx of refugees on its shores; this time, the authorities are turning them away citing COVID-19 concerns. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR)[2] expressed deep concern over the hundreds of Rohingya refugees aboard fishing trawlers, stating that the government can take preventive measures to curb the virus without ignoring the asylum-seekers. UNHCR[3] declared that refugees still have the right to seek international protection and the principle of non-refoulement holds true even if the borders are temporarily sealed due to public health concerns, and not abiding by it is a clear breach of international law. In further efforts to control the spread of the virus, the government is taking more stringent measures by tracking down and detaining illegal Rohingya refugees within the country[4], but the move has only further alienated the vulnerable groups from seeking health assistance. The UN condemned the move once again and urged the government to avoid detaining people in congested detention centres as that will further increase the risk of COVID-19 infections, but the government assured that all the detainees had been screened and tested negative for the virus.

Malaysian authorities defend the rigid measures against the Rohingya minorities after the Tablighi Jamaat event involving some of the refugees, as the country became the hotspot of infections in Southeast Asia early March. The COVID-19 pandemic has further caused division among many groups based on discrimination against religion and ethnicity, especially in India and Pakistan where faith and religion are used as political weapons for division and often seen as the centrality in politics and in one’s identity. There are several reports revealing that certain religious minority groups and refugees in Pakistan were denied ration bags[5] overtly stating that those were not reserved for them. While some in India used the Tablighi Jamaat incident to further berate the minorities by spreading false information online leading to violence and social boycotts against them, escalating race and religious tensions across the country amid the pandemic. UNHCR[6] had to be involved to desensitise and curb the spread of misinformation online and to provide the refugees with accurate, reliable and actionable information to assist them during the crisis. India hosts around 40,000 Rohingya refugees[7] and some camps are experiencing severe food shortage, with the one in Nuh district in Delhi considered as the red zone and under severe lockdown the surrounding sites have observed confirmed cases of the virus; the lockdown has also prevented the camp from receiving aid. Many of the social protection programmes in response to the virus have no special reservation for the refugees in the country.

Afghanistan is also having a hard time dealing with a sudden influx of refugees; however, in this case, they are returnees from Iran and Pakistan. The country[8] grapples with unsafe refugee resettlements and is concerned with the local transmission of the virus as it witnessed the return of more than 1,36,186 refugees from Iran since January—53,069 individuals in just one week (March 8-14)—and at least half of them are suspected to have contracted COVID-19. Though most of them were voluntary returnees, 3407 of them were deported as UNHCR[9] temporarily suspended voluntary return of the refugees stating the risks of deadly virus if movement is not restricted. The whole country in particular is more vulnerable to the virus due to its weak healthcare system and its shared border with Iran, which was open when the country was struggling to contain the spread of the virus. And, reportedly, the first confirmed case of the virus in the country seemed to have arrived from Iran. In response to this, Pakistan sealed its joint border crossing with Iran and Afghanistan,[10] restricting the transport of cargo trucks making it much more difficult for the aid to reach the concerning communities. Pakistan hosts around 2.8 million Afghan refugees with only half of them registered officially, and the closure of the border has prevented more Afghan refugees from returning to their home country. Though on paper the Pakistani government has taken steps to include all vulnerable communities and individuals[11] in its nine-month response plan to combat the pandemic, in reality, many refugees are overlooked or excluded from these protective measures and financial relief schemes as most of them are not entitled to citizenship in the country. Unable to provide food and essential rations in the Afghan camps, and receiving no assistance from UNHCR, the government called out international agencies, urging them to turn measures into practical support[12] and to use funds to provide food rations within the Afghan camps.

Bangladesh also appealed to UNHCR for aid for taking preventive measures to prevent the spread of the virus in its densely populated Rohingya camps. Around 8,59,808 refugees, consisting of 1,50,858 households[13], presently occupy Cox Bazar District, making it the largest refugee camp in the world. The COVID-19 preparedness programmes highlighted health, fuel distribution, nutrition, water and sanitation activities, risk communication, hand-washing stations, and distribution of soaps and hygiene kits. The agency also helped to set up three quarantine facilities and two Isolation and Treatment Centres for the locals and the Rohingya refugees in the community.  The Bangladeshi government imposed nation-wide lockdowns, and international agencies rallied against the government to end Internet blackout[14] and phone restrictions in the camps in Cox Bazar district. Authorities mobilised emergency teams and contact-tracing measures to prevent further casualties as two confirmed cases were observed in May and 1900 others are isolated awaiting testing.[15] The Internet restrictions are making it harder for the refugees to access accurate information on the virus and prevent aid agencies from reaching out to them; organisations are hoping this would make the government lift the Internet blackout in the camps. The Thai government[16] also partnered with aid agencies to communicate and introduce preventive and protective measures in Rohingya camps along the Thai-Myanmar border hosting 31,000 Rohingya refugees from Myanmar in nine camps.

Most of the refugees in South Asia fear dying of starvation rather than the virus. Introducing measures to provide safety nets and food security[17] for the most vulnerable in the society and implementing fiscal policies that target people worst-hit by COVID-19 could possibly reduce the burden on the economy. Governments should recognise their unfair treatment and resort to a more inclusive approach towards policymaking, treating the most vulnerable with dignity and granting them equal rights.

Juanita Justin is Research Intern at CPPR. Views expressed are personal and need not reflect or represent the views of Centre for Public Policy Research.

[1]SAC COVID-19 Support Grants. 2020. The South Asia Collective, April23.

[2]“U.N. Concerned over ‘Grave Immediate Risk’ to Rohingya Refugees on Boats.” 2020. Reuters, April 23.

[3]UNHCR. 2020. “The COVID-19 Crisis: Key Protection Messages”. March 31, 2020.; “What do We mean by ‘Protection’ of Migrants?” n.d. United Nations Human Rights Office of the High Commission.

[4]“Malaysia Rounds up Migrants to Contain Coronavirus, U.N. Warns of Detention Risks”. 2020. Reuters, May 2.

[5]“Discrimination amid Pandemic, Pakistan Refuses to Give Food to Hindus as Covid-19 Rages.” 2020. Business Standard, April 1.; “SCIRF says ‘Troubled’ by Denial of food to Pakistani Hindus, Christians amid Covid-19 Crisis.” 2020. Hindustan Times, April 14.

[6]Bose, Tapan Kumar. 2020. “COVID-19: Rohingya Refugees in India are Battling Islamophobia and Starvation”. The Wire, May 1.

[7]Kapoor, Cheena. 2020. “India: Rohingya in Pandemic Red Zone Face Starvation.”

Anadolu Agency (AA), April 18.

[8]IOM, UN Migration. 2020. “Return of Undocumented Afghans.” March 8-14.

[9]Schlein, Lisa. 2020. “Returning Refugees could Spread Coronavirus in Afghanistan, UN Warns.” VOAnews, April 15.

[10]Sajid, Islamuddin. 2020. “Pakistan Shuts Border with Iran, Afghanistan over Virus.” Anadolu Agency (AA), March 16.

[11]“UNHCR Welcomes Pakistan’s Efforts to Include All in COVID-19 Response.” 2020. Reliefweb, April 6.; “How Awfully COVID-19 Outbreak can Affect Afghan Refugees in Pakistan!” 2020. Tehran Times, April 22..

[12]Sajid, Islamuddin. 2020. “COVID-19: Afghan Refugees in Dire Need, Says Pakistan.” Anadolu Agency (AA),April 5.

[13]UNHCR Operational Portal. 2020.

[14]“Bangladesh: Internet Ban Risks Rohingya Lives.” 2020. Human Rights Watch, March 26. .

[15]“First Coronavirus Case Found in Bangladesh Rohingya Refugee Camps.” 2020. Al Jazeera, May 15.; “Emergency Teams Race to Contain Virus Spread in Rohingya Camps.” 2020. Al Jazeera, May 15.; “Cyclone Amphan Kills Dozens, Destroys Homes in India, Bangladesh.” 2020. Al Jazeera, May 21.

[16]“Chandran, Rina. 2020. “Refugees in Asia Face Delays, Pushbacks as Coronavirus Shuts Borders.” Reuters, March 20.

[17]World Bank.  2020. “South Asia must Ramp up COVID-19 Action to Protect People, Revive Economies.” April 12.

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