Pakistan’s armed forces recently launched another major offensive against foreign and local Islamist militants based in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA). Operation Zarb-e-Azb represents a break from Islamabad’s recent strategy of negotiating peace with the Taliban, a move that baffled many Pakistanis. It’s also resulted in an upsurge of internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the conflict zones.
According to the National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA), almost 700,000 individuals have been registered as displaced as a result of the latest military offensive. By comparison, previous military operations are thought to have resulted in at least 550,000 IDPs. However, the actual number of Pakistanis entering displacement camps as a result of Operation Zarb-e-Azb is thought to be even higher, given that some have not been able to register with the NDMA. In addition, the Afghan government claims that it is providing shelter to over 100,000 IDPs that have crossed the border since the start of the conflict.
Controversially, the Pakistani province of Sindh cites budgetary constraints as the reason behind its decision not to accommodate any IDPs from the FATA region. It’s a decision that’s likely to resonate with those Pakistanis fleeing the conflict who think that Islamabad could be doing more to help them. There’s a sense among many IDPs that they are not only being deprived of their habitat and basic rights, they’re also effectively estranged from the rest of society.
Such perceptions have been reinforced by the Sharif government’s humanitarian response to the conflict. Islamabad initially pledged Rs12000 ($121) per month in food and non-food support for each internally-displaced family. This figure eventually increased to Rs20000, with an additional one-off payment of Rs20000 made for the month of Ramadan. Such pledges pale in comparison with the $31 million $20.5 million-worth of aid provided by the United States and United Arab Emirates.
Many IDPs have also bemoaned the slow-moving registration process and distribution of relief supplies. Officials from the Pakistan Army claim that food rations have been distributed to 70% of families affected by the conflict. Yet, Pakistani media outlets have reported that a large number of IDPs have still not received any kind of support. This has made fasting during the holy month extremely difficult and dangerous.
The humanitarian effort is also being hampered by conditions on the ground. Assistance is mostly provided at distribution points rather than inside refugee camps. This has resulted in long queues being formed in scorching heat for food, water and other supplies. Gender segregation is also complicating the relief effort. Many women and children are forced to remain in their tents, making them particularly vulnerable not only to the elements, but also power shortages. Their plight further highlights the challenge of attempting to register and formally identify IDPs, assessing their specific needs and guaranteeing a fair distribution of relief assistance. In this respect, difficulties with the registration process are further complicating Needs assessment and distribution. The NDMA and registration authority recently detected 13,000 cases of duplication.
Limited access to the most basic of amenities also poses a threat to the health of both the IDPs and local communities. There are concerns that an outbreak of communicable diseases such as gastroenteritis and measles could occur at any time, especially as summer progresses. Extreme weather conditions could also lead to outbreaks of vaccine preventable diseases such as typhoid, as well as injuries attributed to heat exhaustion and animal bites. As a result, Pakistan’s internally-displaced persons remain particularly vulnerable to psychological stress.
It’s by no means better for the many thousands who have been unable to escape the fighting. Many remain at the mercy of militants that are intent on using civilians as human shields. Like many IDPs, those trapped by the fighting also face disrupted electricity supplies, closed hospitals, schools, banks and shops and severe shortages of food, medicine and water. Without well-managed government efforts to provide safety and security to these forgotten residents, the civilian costs of the war will continue to rise rapidly, not just from direct fire, but also through illness and food shortages.
The key challenges facing the aid agencies are plain to see. They must have access to those parts of the country accommodating the IDPs and, indeed, the conflict zones. The United Nations and its partners have already made the call for full and unimpeded access to the affected populations to allow the delivery of humanitarian aid. Yet a lack of access to in places like Bannu District and its frontier region continues to hamper efforts to assess the
condition of IDPs and their host communities. The official line coming out of Islamabad is that granting access to these regions would further complicate efforts to restore security and stability to Pakistan’s most restive provinces.
Indeed, humanitarian actors should fully expect more of the same from the Pakistani government in the months ahead. The current military campaign is unlikely to be completed before August 2014. And with the end of the harvest season and a bitter winter waiting in the wings, significant numbers of IDPs might have no choice but to remain in exile until at least the summer of 2015.
Iqtidar Karamat Cheema is the Director of the Institute for Leadership and Community Development, based in Birmingham, United Kingdom. He holds a PhD in International Relations from the University of Gloucestershire and an MA and M.Phil. in British History from the University of the Punjab.
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