Pakistan’s aggressive military campaign against the Taliban in response to the country’s growing militant threat has led hundreds of thousands of civilians to flee their homes in the Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir districts of the North West Frontier Province. The humanitarian community is calling this the largest migration of civilians in the region since the 1947 partition of India that led to the formation of Pakistan. Michael Young, Pakistan representative of the International Rescue Committee, a humanitarian relief organization, says the situation is deteriorating, with projections of 1.8 million displaced, a number that could significantly rise if the fighting widens or intensifies. Young warns that the displaced populations could themselves become a source of unrest, noting the possible presence of militants within the displaced. "There is inevitably going to be some militant presence or families linked to militants," he says.
Could you address the extent of the crisis we are talking about here in terms of scale and the response to far?
"It is certainly Pakistan’s worst internal displacement crisis since partition."
At the close of the day yesterday [May 12], there were almost 500,000 newly displaced people-people forced to flee their homes in Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir--the districts in which the current counter-Taliban campaign by the armed forces is taking place. That new population of about a half million is in addition to the 565,000 displaced people that have been living in camps and outside camps in the North West Frontier Province for over six months now. And those were people from the tribal [agencies] in the north--Bajaur and Mohmand--where the armed forces have conducted similar anti-Taliban campaigns. There’s clearly a crisis on a deteriorating trend. Currently the total population of displaced people is already just over a million people. And that’s only the people that have been registered; it’s important to stress that. It takes a while for the registration processes [by which] the government formally recognizes them as being displaced and [they are] allowed to access services. The projections that we currently have on the table in the humanitarian community and the government are up to 1.8 million displaced. If the campaign intensifies or widens, even projections of 1.8 million are probably on the conservative side. You’re talking about several million people that will be in danger of displacement in the North West Frontier Province alone.
It is certainly Pakistan’s worst internal displacement crisis since partition. Right now, there are about nineteen camps that are established across the North West Frontier Province. Another thing to emphasize is that only a minority of refugees are reaching the camps and support services they can access in the camps. About 80 percent or 90 percent of the displaced people are actually relying on the hospitality of family and friends in nearby areas--districts like Swabi, Mardan, Charsadda, and Nowshera--that are around Swat, Buner, and Lower Dir. Obviously, that hospitality is fragile. These are people who have had to flee on very short notice, taking very little with them, traveling by and large by foot, and arriving in quite a desperate state and requiring a lot of assistance. That hospitality is reliant upon family and friends who are already under strain from the economic crisis. The population [outside the camps], which is a vast majority of the internally displaced people [IDPs], would rapidly become more vulnerable, even [more] than the population in the camps.
Are the Pakistani government and the international community doing enough?
Yes and no. We are certainly getting to grips with the problem and the government is moving with urgency to get on top of the situation: establishing camps, establishing services, making sure people can get registered and get access to those services. Having said that, the real critical weakness is the level of funding needed to meet the needs for the projected numbers that are coming out of Buner, Lower Dir, and Swat. [The effort is] still critically underfunded. You can’t avoid the fact that there are large gaps in very basic assistance: shelter, water and sanitation, and food. Again, there’s a lot of work going on on the ground. The government, United Nations agencies, and agencies like the International Rescue Committee--we all are doing our utmost to cope with these massive waves of fresh displacement, but the support to be able to supply those services is still lagging behind.
What are going to be the longer term challenges?
"We also simply don’t know, for instance, the level of militant presence within the IDP population. There is inevitably going to be some militant presence or families linked to militants."
Certainly there will continue to be challenges--allowing people to establish a semblance of dignity and self-reliance within the camp setting. There you’re talking about challenges as fundamental as establishing water and sanitation services that are culturally appropriate. The second thing is livelihood. For many of the new wave of displaced, they’ve left with literally nothing. For many people from Swat, it’s the second time they’ve been displaced. The rapidity of the campaigns in Buner and Lower Dir meant that people picked up what they could and fled. Their coping strategies are pretty thin at the moment. So what the government and the international community needs to do is be able to work with the families in the camps and out of the camps to find ways that we can increase their own abilities to become self-reliant [so that they] don’t become dependent on services.
What are some of the implications of such a large-scale population displacement on a state that we already see as being politically, economically, and socially fragile?
There are obviously fairly immediate and fundamental implications. The displaced populations themselves can be a source of tension and unrest. In some of the longer established camps like Kachi Garhi, provision of services, perceptions of unfair treatment, or even just communal divisions, can quickly start wide-scale unrest. The IDP population itself is under great strain in sometimes unfamiliar environments. Sometimes having to deal with services and situations that are not culturally appropriate for them is a source of tension, and you have to proceed very carefully and respectfully in trying to make sure you’re doing things in the right way and to bring the communities themselves into the management of those services.
Secondly, there’s very little credible information on what’s happening in the conflict zone. We also simply don’t know, for instance, the level of militant presence within the IDP population. There is inevitably going to be some militant presence or families linked to militants. But the effect of that upon the displacement and how the humanitarian community can respond to that displacement is very difficult to get a grip on. The third element is that for clear reasons the Pakistani government has nominated the Pakistani Army itself as a key coordinating body for the humanitarian response. The army played a sterling role in responding to the Pakistani earthquake [in 2005]. It [had] a very strong coordination function for that response in terms of rebuilding and recovery. The Pakistani government has charged them with a similar role in terms of the humanitarian response. Now this is a totally different context, and that can be extremely problematic because the Pakistani Army is of course clearly a party to the conflict, it’s prosecuting the conflict, and to have them overtly and strongly involved in the camp management throws up a lot of problems for humanitarian actors in terms of neutrality and impartiality.
You mentioned that it is inevitable that there could be some militant presence within the IDP population. Are there fears then that there might be fighting that breaks out in the camps, or that the camps themselves could become a target for militants?
I would go back and give a comparative example: Look at the Rwandan refugee camps and the real challenge faced by, for instance, the Hutu militia within the refugee populations. It’s always an issue of concern, no matter what kind of displacement you’re dealing with. I would say right now it’s less an issue of the IDP population being a focus for fighting, but certainly IDP camps could be a target for militant attacks, whether that’s a suicide bombing or other Taliban action. That’s the primary worry at the moment. The government is providing security in the camps, but no matter what security we provide, it’s very difficult to guard against those kinds of attacks.
There are also fears that the worsening humanitarian crisis might turn public opinion further against the government, and even provide a political opportunity for the militants. For instance, after the 2005 earthquake in Kashmir, we saw extremist groups stepping in to provide aid in areas the government hadn’t been able to reach. What can the government and the international community do to avoid such a situation?
"International guarding principles for displacement dictate the return is voluntary, safe, and dignified."
We have to make sure we respond extremely rapidly and provide the basic services people need to survive with dignity. Dignity is key. Right now, even in the face of overwhelming refugee flows, the response is speeding up to be able to cope with that. But it will remain a constant challenge to stay on top of the situation. Again, it’s hard right now to get a firm grip on what the danger of that kind of thing arising might be. Certainly, it’s something we’re well aware of.
There have also been some concerns from rights groups that in the past the Pakistani military has used excessive force in such operations. There have been unverified reports that this time, too, the bombardment by the Pakistani Army has resulted in civilian deaths and destruction of property. How active is the international community in the area to ensure that the laws of war are followed and civilian lives are protected?
To be frank, the humanitarian community is not in the zone of conflict. This is one of the more difficult aspects to deal with because we simply do not know what exactly is going on in the zone of conflict in Buner, Swat, and Lower Dir because the Pakistani government is not allowing access even for neutral actors like the Red Cross. So it really is a black hole in terms of the nature of the conflict inside that area.
What other concerns do you have?
It sounds absurdly early to talk about it, but you really need to flesh this out right at the beginning of displacement: What is the criteria for return and what does that look like? What we found with the earlier displacement from Bajaur and Mohmand was that the humanitarian community itself was not as convinced as the government that the time was ripe for return. International guarding principles for displacement dictate the return is voluntary, safe, and dignified. The humanitarian community wasn’t convinced that, in the tribal [agencies] of Bajaur and Mohmand, those conditions could be met credibly, though there was a lot of pressure for those people to return. I fear that a similar situation could arise for the people forced to flee Swat, Buner, and Dir. Right at the beginning, we need to be clear as a community to say, "These are things that we would be looking for in terms of being able to credibly support a return movement for people who wish to voluntarily return."