accommodating the displaced

Published in this form in the “Opinion & Editorial” section of the Express Tribune, 3 July 2014.


Complex emergency situations have driven several waves of displacement in Pakistan over the past few years. Every time, the spirit of philanthropy and public service has risen to the surface. Now that thousands of families are spilling out of North Waziristan into lives of uncertainty and destitution, there is, once more, a sizable public effort to provide relief. However, is this going to be enough?

The Nawaz government has also offered Ramazan packages and the promise of return “soon.” Looking at previous patterns of displacement and return, a more systematic and possibly pragmatic approach may be in order.

An estimated five million people from Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (K-P) and Fata have been displaced by conflict, sectarian violence and human rights abuses since 2004. While there has been an effort to facilitate returns to K-P and Fata, continuing instability has forced several families to move repeatedly.

Most families eventually opt to live outside the “exceptional space” that is the refugee camp – which is a world unto its own, with its own rules and risks. However, off-camp IDPs in Pakistan have been facing serious challenges in terms of integration and survival. Information gathered by the IDP Vulnerability Assessment and Profiling project in 2013 indicates that the majority of displaced families in host districts survived on daily wage labour, with a combined monthly income falling between Rs2,500 and Rs 5,000.

Due to limited livelihood opportunities, off-camp IDPs have begun relying on ‘negative coping strategies’ – defined as a set of responses that provide the temporary means to survive, but undermine long-term security. Essentially, they have been drawing on savings and assets like livestock and jewellery to pay for basic necessities. Many have taken on debts, simply to feed their families.

All this needs to be taken into account in order to sketch a bigger picture of the crises of displacement. In spite of the huge scale of population movements due to intrastate violence in Pakistan, the government has not adopted a national IDP policy or law. In fact, in the past, national authorities have often refrained from using the term ‘IDP’, instead describing individuals as ‘temporarily dislocated’ or ‘affected’. This means that the authorities have not consistently acknowledged their responsibility for protecting or assisting IDPs — placing the displaced families in a situation of extreme vulnerability.

On the one hand, there is this idea that their situation is temporary, and they should not establish lives outside their places of origin. But Pakistan is a fragile country and there is no knowing how long the violence will last. So what will happen when support and sympathy for the IDPs wears thin, and there is donor fatigue? Should they continue to live in camps, in an artificial world dependent on external aid — or choose to be resented as outsiders in host communities, forever stigmatised and held in suspicion?

There is a very real fear that in time, the IDPs will cease to be viewed as victims and instead be cast as villains, who place a burden on scarce resources and are responsible for the declining law and order. Already, the response of provincial governments apart from Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa has been less than sympathetic. The government of Sindh has contemplated plans to check the flow of evacuees, with Sindhi nationalist voices rising against them even before the operation. Given the rise in urban violence, provincial authorities are wary of creating havens for militancy. In cities like Islamabad, similar fears recently led to demolition orders for 12 informal settlements housing different kinds of mobile communities.

The influx of people, however, is inevitable; they will naturally drift towards places where they might just find support systems or livelihood opportunities. It is simply astonishing that the capital administration has not yet developed viable plans to accommodate them. Planning is paramount to pre-empt a range of issues, from those associated with urban poverty to rising insecurity.

The first step is to ensure systematic processes for registering families. It is commendable that efforts to do this are being undertaken at present — but real-world challenges need to be taken into account. In the past, registration and access to aid has proven to be difficult for people who never before had National Identity Cards. Also, there has to be more recognition of different kinds of vulnerability, so that female-headed households and unaccompanied children are not overlooked.

There are some immediate needs for the men, women and children fleeing war, many of whom are still trying to observe the month of fasting in the heat of summer. Food, shelter and basic medical supplies come first, and there is currently an honest effort to ensure their provision. The international humanitarian cluster and the government of Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa have acknowledged their task, daunting though it may be. The generous support of the nation has also, once more, demonstrated that Pakistan has the potential to make it through the initial part of this difficult time.

However, as Zarb-e-Azb continues, there is a pressing need to think more deeply about how resources can be best directed, to do the most good and the least harm. How the new and existing IDPs will be accommodated as well as gainfully employed are questions that policy-makers should consider, and now. Including representatives from the displaced communities in the discourse will help identify the hurdles that exist on the ground, the services that should be provided by institutions, and the best way of going about rehabilitation.

To leave behind all that is familiar, and to be humbled by the vicissitudes of displacement, is a real trial for a proud people. Some thought for their future will help assure them that they too are citizens of Pakistan, and that this is a place where they can hope to live in dignity.


One response to “accommodating the displaced

  1. Pingback: the journey to “real” | the write thing·

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