IRC Responds to New Crisis in Pakistan as Thousands Flee Fighting
“Up to now, this has been something of a forgotten crisis,” said the IRC’s Pakistan country representative, Mike Young. “Over half a million people have been living in exile from their homes for over six months already. Urgent humanitarian appeals are still critically under-funded for core needs like food, health, education, and water and sanitation.”
Young said that most of those uprooted by the recent fighting in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP) come from the Lower Dir and Buner areas near the Taliban stronghold of Swat Valley, but that that an increasing number of people are arriving from Swat as well.
“People from Lower Dir and Buner are currently concentrating in the nearby districts of Mardan, Swabi, Nowshera and Charsadda, where the government is establishing new camps,” Young says. “Displaced families are also beginning to appear in Islamabad, Rawalpindi and other big cities as numbers grow.”
Young said that the vast majority of displaced families don’t reach the camps – where they can at least get basic services and a degree of security – but rely on the hospitality of families and friends.
“At present, nearly 80 percent of the displaced are hosted by friends and family outside the camps. This hospitality is fragile and places great stress on households already under economic strain.”
With the government and international community predicting displacement on the scale of between 500,000 and one million additional people over the coming months, the IRC is rapidly stepping up its services. Already, IRC staff is working alongside the UN refugee agency UNHCR, the Pakistan government’s relief commission and district officers in new camps struggling to cope with the latest arrivals from Lower Dir, Buner and Swat. IRC teams ensure that displaced families get proper registration and access to services and support – over 65,000 new people this week alone.
“The humanitarian response needs to be rapid,” said Taj Sultana, the IRC’s protection coordinator in Pakistan. “Most of the newly displaced families from places like Buner arrive with nothing. Sometimes they travel by foot for hours to reach safety and assistance. And many families from Swat are being displaced for the second time.”
Abdul Haseeb, the IRC’s senior coordinator for humanitarian response in Pakistan, said that the current emergency is potentially the biggest displacement crisis Pakistan has faced.
“In many ways it is even more challenging than the earthquake in 2005, as the situation is so violent, unpredictable and changes so rapidly,” he said. “The IRC is moving fast to support the families who have fled, but the situation gets graver every day. We need to be ahead of the curve so we can be there with crucial assistance as the conflict widens and more families race for their survival.”
“The IRC was one of the first organizations on the ground assisting displaced families from the first wave of conflict in the northern tribal areas from last November,” Haseeb noted. “We have already been working with our partners to register nearly 600,000 displaced people, safeguard their rights, get them access to basic lifesaving services, and directly providing clean, safe water and sanitation services and education for nearly 20,000 people. We’re now working with the government, UNHCR, UNICEF and other partners to meet the needs of the tens of thousands of new families fleeing Lower Dir, Buner and Swat.”
The latest fighting comes after the collapse of a February 2009 peace pact aimed at ending Taliban violence in Swat. Since then, Taliban militants have advanced into districts beyond Swat. As militants edged closer to the Pakistani capital Islamabad, the government launched new army campaigns to halt the offensive.
“This is a conflict with deep roots,” Mike Young noted. “Violent conflict between government security forces and Taliban militants has been erupting for over four years now across many different areas of north-western Pakistan. Dir, Buner and Swat are the latest zones of active conflict but many other areas remain extremely vulnerable to renewed violence, displacement and suffering.”