Insights and Analysis

In Pakistan: Homeless in their Homeland

June 17, 2009

By Nadia Tariq-Ali

United Nations officials have described the recent displacement of Pakistanis as the biggest humanitarian crisis since the 1994 genocide in Rwanda. It is also the largest dislocation of people in the region since the partition of the South Asian subcontinent in 1947 and, arguably, the worst crisis facing Pakistan since Bangladesh separated from Pakistan in 1971.


After years of procrastination, in late April of this year, Pakistan launched a full-scale military operation against Taliban militants and their Al Qaeda associates in its restive northwestern territories. Since the Taliban were consistently undermining the writ of the state, the battle has been long overdue: Taliban militants carried out suicide attacks across the country, targeting Pakistan’s security forces, intelligence community – and innocent civilians – which has made it nearly impossible for the Pakistani government to work with its allies in the region.

The United States, seeing the Taliban threat as an issue affecting its own national security, has clearly conveyed that it expected Pakistan to fight Taliban militants to not only restore its writ in the Taliban-occupied territories, but for Pakistan’s own survival. In order to eliminate the militants’ leadership, the Pakistani government took this war to the tribal badlands – believed to be the conflict’s center of gravity. However, while the international community and Pakistan’s government have put an emphasis on supporting the counter-insurgency efforts, it seems far less attention or planning has gone into dealing with the mass exodus of people from the conflict zone, leaving a vulnerable population of over 2 million officially reported as internally displaced persons (IDPs) by the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (as of June 16).


The IDP problem in Pakistan is immense and growing. The military offensive uprooted millions of people from three northwestern districts. As the offensive gained strength and people fled their homes for safety, the Pakistani government seemed unprepared for the crisis. Initially, no refugee camps existed, so many people went to the homes of their relatives and friends in other cities. However, in subsequent days, tens of thousands of people have gone to the special sites established for the IDPs in Mardan, Swabi, and Peshawar. Unfortunately, these facilities lacked even the most basic amenities of life: food, proper sanitation, and health facilities. The disruption of normal life has affected displaced persons psychologically, economically, socially, and emotionally. Women and girls face an extra risk of sexual and gender-based violence like rape, forced impregnation, forced abortion, trafficking, and sexual slavery in most internal displacement situations.

The international response to the situation leaves much to be desired. According to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Centre, the United Nations and humanitarian agencies have issued an appeal for $543 million. As of June 12, only 22 percent of the appeal has been funded. If more money does not come through soon, the dire IDP situation will be compounded.

pk-blog-617093In a recent Washington Post op-ed, Ahmed Rashid reported on the miseries of the World Food Program in Pakistan, which is currently feeding over 2.1 million people. The organization, he claimed, was “60 percent short of its estimated costs to buy more food,” and he quoted its top official in Pakistan as saying that it would run out of food “in a few weeks” if pledges were not made immediately.

Large numbers of refugees still have acute needs for basic assistance. As an immediate response to the crisis, The Asia Foundation’s Pakistan office is actively supporting trusted partners with disaster response expertise and recovery planning. Also, we are linking them with private fundraising resources in the U.S., such as Give2Asia, to support the daunting relief work ahead. The immediate focus includes support for critical services such as the establishment of camps, food, and clean drinking water, health and hygiene, continuation of literacy efforts for children, and information centers to assist IDPs in registering for access to government services. The Foundation is also focusing on ways to extend ongoing programming in Pakistan with current partner organizations to specifically reach out to this large IDP population.

Children are particularly negatively affected by such displacements. According to a government estimate, there are tens of thousands of IDP children from ages 4 to 16. There are hardly any schools at the camps, and government initiatives to provide education are still inadequate. Schools and learning activities in camps are vital to not only ensure continuation of education for children, but to also provide children a positive alternative to the traumatic situation they are facing. In this context, The Foundation is planning to revive its Box Libraries initiative, originally implemented during the 1980s, as part of its significant Books for Asia in Pakistan program, which delivered almost 80,000 books throughout Pakistan in just the last year. English-language books donated from the United States will be combined with books purchased locally in Urdu (the national language) and other local languages and dialects. These materials are then packaged into mobile, metal “box library” containers and delivered to teachers in the camps.

Given the crisis, the Foundation also plans to expand its work on increasing women’s participation in governance in northwest Pakistan to include a special focus on IDP women. Programs addressing the needs of women IDPs will offer referral services, address medical and trauma associated with experiencing violence, and protect women against gender-based violence such as sexual harassment and trafficking. Women must be made aware of their legal rights, as history shows they can be exploited during disaster situations. The Foundation is also exploring developing economic empowerment programs to help displaced women start up their own enterprises and become self-sufficient.

Donor-supported efforts for IDPs will also need to continue beyond immediate relief efforts. Focusing on longer-term reconstruction and recovery through economic and social empowerment will help people move forward and rebuild their lives. Pakistan, after all, is not only fighting for its own survival but also for greater regional stability and security, which could face serious setbacks if the displacement issue is not adequately addressed.

Nadia Tariq Ali is The Asia Foundation’s Senior Program Officer in Pakistan. She can be reached at [email protected]. For more information on ways to support our work with internally displaced persons in Pakistan, please contact Bulbul Gupta, Grants Manager for Programs and Private Philanthropy, at [email protected].

Related locations: Pakistan


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