Refugee support in Pakistan lacks responsiveness to religious inequalities

Published on 26 July 2022

It’s almost been a year since the Taliban swiftly regained power in Afghanistan, which led to a new exodus of refugees, many of whom sought refuge in neighbouring Pakistan. In this blog, Jennifer P. Eggert, Maryam Kanwer and Jaffer A. Mirza share insights and recommendations from their new paper on the experiences of Shi’a Hazara refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan.

Street art depicting a woman and child refugee with figures of men in the background
Extract from Kamiran Haji’s street art depicting refugees. Credit: Joan (CC-BY-NC)

It is no surprise to find that a significant proportion of Afghan refugees are from the Shi’a Hazara community which has been persecuted in both Afghanistan and Pakistan for decades.

The IDS-led Coalition for Religious Equality and Inclusive Development (CREID) and the Joint Learning Initiative on Faith and Local Communities (JLIFLC) have previously documented how international humanitarian organisations can be unresponsive to religious diversity, with programming being at risk of being at best ineffectual and at worst detrimental to populations in crisis, whose vulnerability is exacerbated by pre-existing religious inequalities.

The Shi’a Hazara refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan are a case in point.

Beyond faith sensitivity: a focus on religious inequalities in humanitarianism

While overall there may be a trend towards international and secular humanitarian actors becoming more aware of the role of religion and religious actors in humanitarian work, an awareness of faith amongst humanitarian providers rarely includes responsiveness to inequalities based on dynamics amongst religiously diverse populations.

This is a problem, because simply being faith-sensitive is not enough if this sensitivity is only responsive to majority religious beliefs and practices.

Producing evidence on how religious inequalities are implemented in practice

Diversity and the dynamics between different religious and secular groups has a clear impact on the needs of and barriers facing people of various faiths (and none). Rather than focusing on faith only, humanitarian action must therefore also consider religious diversity.

Earlier CREID research has shown the need for humanitarian interventions to be designed and implemented in a way that is both aware of and responsive to religious inequalities and outlined ways in which that can be achieved. However, there is a dearth of robust evidence on how such responsiveness to religious inequalities can be implemented in practice. Our recently published report on humanitarian response, refugee support, and religious inequalities in Pakistan aims to help fill this gap.

Experiences of Afghan Shia Hazara refugees and humanitarian responders in Pakistan

Our study focused on the experiences of Shia Hazara refugees fleeing Afghanistan and crossing into Balochistan province, Pakistan, and the humanitarian actors supporting them.

We interviewed 32 refugees and providers of humanitarian assistance, and our analysis sheds light, we hope, on the question of how humanitarian assistance – provided by local, national, international, secular and faith-based actors – can be responsive to inequalities caused and exacerbated by religious diversity in refugee populations and between refugees and host communities.

Being an Afghan refugee in Pakistan

  • Afghan refugees in Pakistan face significant challenges, which are mostly due to their lack of legal status in the country, exacerbated in many cases through poverty.
  • State authorities control all refugee support, leaving little space for non-state actors to legally provide assistance to refugees nor address religious inequalities.Information about what support is available to refugees is not shared effectively by national and international actors.
  • Information about what support is available to refugees is not shared effectively by national and international actors.

Being a Shia Hazara Afghan refugee in Pakistan 

Refugees of Shi’a Hazara backgrounds are particularly affected due to a combination of displacement, poverty, and religious and ethnic inequalities.

Shi’a Hazara refugees and their local supporters report frequent cases of discrimination and human rights violations targeting the minority group.

While local providers of refugee support have shown high levels of responsiveness to refugees’ specific needs due to their religious and ethnic backgrounds, we found that national and international actors’ responsiveness to religious and ethnic inequalities affecting refugee populations remains limited.

As a result of their additional vulnerabilities in displacement, religious minority communities tend to have higher level distrust of humanitarian agencies and state authorities in Pakistan.

Five recommendations for practitioners and policymakers

Our research suggests that in order to effectively respond to religious inequalities in displacement, providers of humanitarian assistance to refugees should:

1. Prioritise intersectional approaches

  • Recognise that refugees are never just refugees, but individuals with a range of different layers to their identity, which may all affect their specific needs and experiences in displacement.
  • Recognise that equality is not the same as equity, and that claims that everyone is treated in the same way are not enough.
  • Design and implement intersectional approaches to refugee support that take multiple aspects of refugees’ identities and their relations with local communities and wider society into account.

2. Address religious inequalities

  • Carefully examine dynamics between religious minorities and majorities (both in terms of actual size and de facto discrimination) and their potential impact on inequalities, rather than focusing on one faith, particularly the majority group, alone.
  • Actively identify possible inequalities due to religious as well as ethnic, racial, socioeconomic, gender and other factors.
  • Develop strategies to overcome and mitigate barriers to addressing religious inequalities in humanitarian contexts of displacement.
  • Integrate responsiveness to religious inequalities into all phases of the humanitarian programme cycle.

3. Engage key actors

  • Coordinate amongst researchers, practitioners, policymakers and civil society to ensure religious inequalities are adequately addressed in refugee support.
  • Liaise between local, national and international, formal and informal providers of support, to streamline responses to religious inequalities in refugee assistance.
  • Sensitise providers of refugee support, local communities and wider society to the rights of refugees in areas of faith and religious inequalities, through training, education and awareness campaigns.

4. Support local and faith-based organisations where appropriate

  • Work with and support local organisations and faith-based organisations that share a religious identity with marginalised groups, speak relevant languages, and/or know local context and therefore often are in a particularly good position to support refugees in ways that consider religious inequalities, where relevant and appropriate.
  • Employ local staff from the same community at the forefront of supporting refugees from marginalised backgrounds.
  • Work together to ensure that all possible providers of support can assist refugees, including those who may face significant limitations in their work, especially when working in restrictive environments.

5. Consider spatial aspects of religious inequalities

  • Create safe spaces and routes to access support for refugees of all backgrounds.
  • Develop an awareness of how histories of persecution and geographies affect refugees’ ability to refugees’ experiences and their ability to engage with providers of support.
  • Adapt pathways to ensure accessibility of services to refugees of all backgrounds.

Download our paper

The views expressed in this opinion piece are those of the author/s and do not necessarily reflect the views or policies of IDS.

Related content

Working Paper

Responsiveness to religious inequalities in contexts of displacement: Evidence from providers of humanitarian assistance to Shi’a Hazara refugees from Afghanistan in Pakistan

CREID Working Paper 12

26 July 2022