Protracted relief emergency feared in Pakistan as 3.4 million flee conflict areas

By agency reporter
June 1, 2009

The suffering and need of millions of Pakistan’s displaced people could last for many months, according to UK relief and development agency Tearfund.

According to local sources, as many as 3.4 million people are now reported to be vulnerable after being uprooted from their homes in the Swat Valley and neighbouring areas of northern Pakistan: the majority leaving since the Pakistan Army began its recent offensive last month.

Tearfund says that the scale of need should focus international attention and trigger a major humanitarian response to avoid prolonging the suffering.

"The needs are massively under-served and the world’s media attention is elsewhere," says David Bainbridge, Tearfund’s Disaster Management Director. "At present our response is a drop in the ocean. The delayed media attention to Sri Lanka hindered the humanitarian response there. We must avoid the same situation in Pakistan where limited access and media coverage make this another forgotten crisis where the humanitarian needs of the displaced are inadequately provided for."

According to World Health Organisation officials and local sources, some 2.9 million people are estimated to have fled from the region in recent weeks.

Over half a million people are living in camps whilst the rest are staying with extended families or friends who, in the majority of cases, are themselves poor. This can mean immense overcrowding and pressure on facilities which increases the risk of disease.

According to one local report, up to 65 people are sharing two rooms. Other families are staying in schools and mosques or in rented accommodation. In addition, there are half a million people in the north west who have been displaced since last August. Many come from tribal areas of the region as Pakistan’s military offensive on Taliban positions intensifies.

The UN refugee agency has described the displacement of people in Pakistan as the largest and fastest anywhere in the world in recent years, putting it on a comparable scale to Rwanda in 1994. The crisis comes at a key point in the region’s crop planting season and is likely to have a detrimental knock-on effect for food supplies this winter and into next year.

Concerns that this crisis could result in a protracted displacement are underlined by the uncertainty about the length of the Pakistan Army's operations in the region. Further fighting in Waziristan, which borders Afghanistan to the south west of the Swat Valley, could lead to further population movements as people fear becoming trapped in subsequent military attacks.

In what is seen as one of the world’s largest humanitarian crises, Tearfund’s programme, working through local partner agency SSEWA-Pak, is providing food, water and tents for hundreds of families who have fled the conflict areas to stay in locations further south.

The conflict in the Swat Valley, involving the Pakistani armed forces in an offensive against some Taliban militants, also threatens to cause a major health crisis. Due to the summer heat and with 15 camps established by Pakistan’s government already filled to capacity in the last month, dehydration is now a major issue. With little access to basic sanitation, there is a growing risk of waterborne diseases spreading. SSEWA-Pak is providing communal toilets, mobile medical clinics and kitchens as part of its core response. Monsoon rains are expected in the coming weeks and are likely to exacerbate the situation.

Joining with other local organisations, SSEWA-Pak is establishing a new camp at Shivai Ada in Swabi District. This is one of three camps including one based in a rural school. Relief distributions include sacks of food, baby food, cooking utensils and water containers.

Ashraf Mall, Tearfund’s representative in Pakistan, says that while aid agencies are doing all they can to respond to the immediate need, the scale remains overwhelming. "People urgently need food supplies, shelter and medicines," says Ashraf. "Tearfund’s appeal for urgent support will enable our partner relief teams to help more and more displaced families as their numbers grow daily with the conflict continuing. Their immediate needs are urgent and any amount that people can manage to give will directly help."

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