Iftikhar Khan

PESHAWAR: A strange situation developed at the Pak-Afghan border in Torkham two weeks ago when hundreds of Afghan refugees gathered there, saying that the border opening has been announced, but the border officials said no such announcement has been made and they might have received some wrong news.

The situation developed after sharing of a misleading message on WhatsApp groups, Facebook and social media websites that the border has been opened for Afghan refugees. Without confirming the news, hundreds of refugees from Peshawar and rest of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa reached the border early in the morning in the hope of crossing it and going to Afghanistan.

Sameem Ahmed Nishat, who works on creating awareness among Afghan refugees on different issues, said most of the refugees in Pakistan don’t have access to free information and they depend on social media which is known for spreading unauthentic news.

Sameem Ahmed, who is a Bio-Technology student at the University of Peshawar, said the refugees living in camps have lesser access to facilities as they don’t posses TV and lack of electricity has further compounded their problems. Even those having TV sets can’t benefit from it because news channels don’t give much coverage to the issues concerning Afghan refugees.

Sameem said most of the refugees are illiterate and they can’t differentiate between rumours and authentic news on social media.

Shahid Khan, an Afghan refugee in Peshawar, said radio was previously used regularly in Afghan refugees camps, but the new generation is losing interest in this important medium of communication. He said only few elderly people now listen to radio news programs of BBC and other foreign channels. He said the refugee women are the most affected segment as they have no mean to access firsthand information.

Shahid Khan said the UNHCR has also brought some changes in its working methods to enable the refugees to have access to authentic information. He said now the UN refugee agency is also using social media besides traditional media for accessing people to share information with them.

The UNHCR spokesman Qaiser Khan Afridi said the UN refugee agency is not merely depending on social media for information sharing. He said other media of communication have also been used to share timely and authentic information with the refugees and citizens who travel frequently across the border. He said besides the use of mainstream media and social media, the UNHCR has also acquired the services of 3,000 Afghan volunteers who work for creating awareness among refugees about various projects.

How refugees are getting info about COVID-19

About 9 million Afghan refugees are living the 15 most affected countries from coronavirus. The UNHCR data shows that Greece, Lebanon, Pakistan, Turkey and Germany are on top of the list of countries hosting the refugees.

There are about 1.4 million registered Afghan refugees in Pakistan, and the number of non-registered refugees is also stated to be the same.

Pakistan is now among the 15 countries most affected from the virus which is facing a difficult situation and the condition of refugees in such a situation is even worse. The Pakistan government is sharing information about the pandemic with its citizens through the mainstream media, but the refugees have not received any such facility or financial assistance.

Qaiser Afridi told TNN that the UNHCR has devised a plan to share information with the Afghan refugees and citizens in Pakistan about coronavirus with the help of volunteers. He said the UNHCR partner organisations first impart training to volunteers who then went to community for information sharing. He said banners for awareness have also been displayed in areas inhabited by the refugees.

Haji Faiz Muhammad, an elderly refugee living in Akora Khattak camp in Nowshera, said the UNHCR volunteers regularly come to refugee camps and create awareness about different issues. He said information is also shared through WhatsApp groups. However, he said, very few people act on the information provided by the UNHCR. Nowadays, rumours are rife in Afghan refugees that coronavirus patients in hospitals are being killed with poisonous injections.

Haji Faiz Muhammad said dozens of refugees in camp and houses have been infected by coronavirus, but they are not going to hospitals due to fears created by rumours, and they have quarantined themselves at home.

Qaiser Afridi said rumours about the pandemic are rife throughout the world. He said the UNHCR is working to keep the refugees away from rumours and save them from the disease and help them in these challenging times.