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Refugee Advocacy Group Blasts Pakistan’s Displaced-Persons Policies

Refugees International, a humanitarian non-governmental organization recently headed by former Pentagon official Kenneth Bacon, is out this morning with a new paper sounding an alarm about the ongoing displaced-persons crisis in Pakistan, a result of insurgent violence and Pakistani military reprisal. The group calls on the Obama administration to “insist that the [Pakistani] government prioritize the protection of civilians,” something it says the current offensive in Waziristan against the Pakistani Taliban is failing to do.

Already, the group assesses, the week-old Waziristan campaign has created 200,000 internally displaced persons, while another 10,000 families are displaced in nearby Khyber to the north, and an additional 700,000 remain displaced after the spring fighting in the Swat Valley. Refugees International blasts the Pakistani government and military for severely restricting international and NGO access to the displaced, even using the term “dislocated” persons “to circumvent its responsibilities under international humanitarian law,” according to its report. As a result, it’s difficult to know how dire conditions really are amongst the displaced.

Even so, Refugees International reports an alarming trend in Pakistan: the displaced are becoming targets for persecution and not aid, as officials consider the refugees to be little more than insurgent collaborators.

According to a senior UN official, the government holds the view that civilians from certain areas, including those who fled, are “all insurgents who deserve to be punished.” Civilians from FATA are the primary victims of these policies, with aid groups reporting that wounded civilians are kept from leaving Khyber agency to go to Peshawar hospitals. As for the new military offensive in South Waziristan, the government’s strategy seems to be to cordon off the area, restrict civilian movements, and keep aid groups away. A major international aid organization was escorted out of D.I. Khan, Waziristan’s neighboring agency, when it tried to conduct an assessment there. A senior diplomat told Refugees International that in this “dirty war” it has waged, the government wants “to keep all ears and eyes away.” This is resulting in a policy of containment, with civilians kept from leaving, and only members of the Mehsud, the tribe of the insurgents, allowed to register as internally displaced people. NGOs also report being kept from distributing assistance to internally displaced people from South Waziristan.

The U.S. responded to the refugee crisis in Swat with unorthodox measures like setting up a text-messaging campaign to donate $5 to refugee aid. No such effort has accompanied the Waziristan campaign — an offensive pursued, in part, because of pressure from the Obama administration. Refugees International calls on the administration to take a variety of steps:

While U.S. humanitarian assistance was forthcoming and generous during the summer, it is important that the U.S. lends its political weight on ensuring the protection of civilians. In particular it should ensure that relief assistance is provided to vulnerable individuals and that they receive protection from the Pakistani government, regardless of their geographic origin or allegiances. It should ensure the UN has the independence to assess where and how it should work, and in particular that food distributions are delinked from government lists.

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