With approximately 1.6 million Afghan refugees living in Pakistan Hassan Vatanparast (University of Saskatchewan, Canada) and a team of researchers conducted 25 in-depth interviews with Afghan refugee family members to understand how the families compare their quality of life and food security in the home (Afghanistan) and host (Pakistan) countries. Here Hassan explains what they learned.

In their journey towards resettlement or repatriation, protracted refugees face adverse challenges meeting their basic needs and rights. The relationship between nutrition and health, establishing links between a lack of certain nutrients and growth, physical health, and mental health, indicates the need to understand factors that influence healthy eating and food insecurity. Considering the Sustainable Development Goal of Zero Hunger by 2030, it is crucial to investigate both nutrition and food security as an essential component of global health for at-risk populations.

Afghanistan is one of the significant conflict zones with more than four decades of war. The country remains the first or second among the refugee sources in UNHCR reports in the past four decades. A vast majority of Afghan refugees have migrated to Pakistan and Iran early 1970s. This study focuses on identifying the facilitators and barriers associated with the food security status of Afghan refugees residing in Karachi, Pakistan.  Approximately 1.6 million refugees are living in Pakistan (United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees [UNHCR] 2016a).  Among them, 26,716 families (130,746 individuals) living in Karachi (Ministry of States & Frontier Regions Government of Pakistan [MSFRGP] 2005).

Economic limitations and socio-cultural barriers, including lack of access to education, healthcare, and low literacy, influence the food security status of Afghans (Advisory Committee for Consultations, 2017). Substantively these barriers combined shape physical and economic access to food, availability, and stability of ones’ food supply. Available statistics from Afghanistan indicates one third of Afghans are food insecure, and segments of the population most impacted by food insecurity include rural communities, women, children, internally displaced persons, returnees, economically poor households comprised of large, low-wage or precarious workers, and/or family members with illnesses or disabilities (Advisory Committee for Consultations, 2017).

Our study published in 2019 consists of a series of 25 in-depth interviews with Afghan refugee family members to understand how refugee families compare their quality of life and food security in the home (Afghanistan) and host (Pakistan) countries. We explored refugees’ perceptions of what constitutes a balanced meal, as well as the food conditions or environments before and after migration.

The quality of life for Afghan families before migration was generally described as relatively poor, not only economically but also politically and socially. The drought, long war, unstable political situation, absence of proper infrastructure, poor economic status, lack of access to education and health services, limited availability, and accessibility of food were described as the characteristics of the Afghans’ living condition before migration from Afghanistan.

Running for their lives, findings from the study revealed precarious migration status as the most significant characteristic defining their post-migration life conditions in Pakistan. Refugees reported physical and emotional police harassment regardless of the validity of their card, frustrations around annual expiration, difficulties renewing, lower pay by employers due to expired residency, being forced to bribe the police even with a valid Nadra card[1], as the main reasons in which precarious states shaped their quality of life in Pakistan.

Another notable observation from the interviews is the recognizable gap in understanding the rights and responsibilities that come with a Nadra card. Most of the families with a Nadra card are not aware of their exact legal status, their legal rights, and whether they are allowed to integrate economically and socially. Moreover, based on the respondents’ recollection, public sector officials, private sector businesses, and private sector employers are all unclear about what rights, benefits, and responsibilities come with a Nadra card and status. Most of them do not understand the difference between a refugee without status and a Nadra cardholder when interacting with or hiring them. This lack of knowledge of Nadra status exacerbates the problem of the lack of trust in, and justified fear of, government officials, including the police, as well as private sector businesses and employers.

Understanding the food security in the host country will provide further evidence to understand the capacity of the host country to assist refugees. Findings from this study highlight the need for aid organizations involved in the process of repatriation of Afghan refugees to be aware of the challenges of chronic food insecurity and the health complications associated with it. Positive change will require additional strategic planning designed to improve, among other things, food supply systems, health service systems, and support systems for refugees.

In the case of repatriation, the coordination among the governments of Pakistan and Afghanistan, and world aid organizations, e.g., UNHCR, WHO, and UNICEF, is important to build effective food security-related policies. Well-designed strategic repatriation plans that involve food security related policies to address the acute food security condition associated with displacement for prolonged refugees during repatriation, as well as preventing further continuity of the chronic condition seems necessary.

This blog is based on a Khakpour, M; Iqbal, R; GhulamHussain, N; Engler-Stringer, R; Koc, M; Garcea, J; Farag, M; Henry, C; Vatanparast, H, 2019,  Facilitators and Barriers toward Food Security of Afghan Refugees Residing in Karachi, Pakistan, Ecology of Food and Nutrition, 58 (4):317–334

This article gives the views of the author, and not the position of the South Asia @ LSE blog, nor of the London School of Economics. Featured photo: Afghan Refugees Settlement, Islamabad. Credit: Hashoo Foundation USA, Flickr.

Hassan Vatanparast is Professor and Joint Faculty Member, College of Pharmacy and Nutrition, University of Saskatchewan, Canada.

[1] [1] NADRA is a proof of registration card issued by Government of Pakistan and supported by UNHCR, and renewed in specific announced centers. This card is required to be renewed upon expiration. To be registered as refugee, the households should apply and renew the Nadra residency card. The households may also apply for refugee status with UNHCR if they are able to establish in a comprehensive interview that they cannot return to Afghanistan because they fear for their life or liberty.


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