On the Record

Pakistani Displacement: Lessons Learned from Other Mass Displacement Situations

Elizabeth Ferris

Once again the newspaper headlines report a massive displacement crisis. Images fill our television screens of people fleeing with their earthly belongings tied in bundles upon their back and of separated families, desperate to know the whereabouts of their relatives. This time the displaced are fleeing counter-insurgency campaigns in Pakistan. While I am not an expert on Pakistan, there are some lessons which have been painfully learned in other situations of large-scale displacement which may be applicable to planning an appropriate response.

1. People fleeing violence and who remain within the borders of their own countries are not refugees. They are not ‘internal refugees.’ They are internally displaced persons (IDPs). Even well-regarded media make the mistake of calling those displaced from their homes in North West Frontier Province and FATA refugees. One of my colleagues jokes that it makes for easier headline-writing: ‘refugees flee Swat’ is easier to fit into a headline banner than ‘internally displaced persons flee Swat.’ But internally displaced persons are not refugees. They are citizens of their countries. They have rights and responsibilities that don’t vanish when they are displaced. Just as African-American leaders protested the term ‘Katrina refugees’ because those displaced by the hurricane were US citizens, so too those Pakistanis displaced within their country from the recent counter-insurgency operations are IDPs not refugees. While there is no binding international law—equivalent to the 1951 Convention on Refugees—which applies to IDPs, there are the United Nations Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement which are derived from binding international law and provide clear guidance on protecting the human rights of those displaced by conflict and other factors.

2. Estimating the number of displaced, particularly IDPs, is always difficult and is often a politicized process. When IDPs—or refugees, for that matter—live in camps, counting them is easier than when they are living with host families or dispersed in communities. Sometimes governments have an interest in inflating the number of refugees as a way of generating international attention and assistance. Sometimes governmental registration systems, set up in haste, are inaccurate. For example, humanitarian workers have said that some of the Pakistani IDPs have been double- and triple-counted and that the estimates are 40% higher than they should be.[1] Whether the numbers are 2 or 3 million (on top of the 500,000 or so previously displaced), it is important not to fixate too closely on the numbers. Rather it’s important to look at the needs of the population. Given the on-going and planned counter-insurgency campaigns of the Pakistani government, the number of Pakistani IDPs is expected to increase in the coming months, perhaps to 4 million.

3. The reports are that 80- 90% of the displaced are living with host families and friends or in communal buildings such as schools, rather than camps. Pakistani infrastructure is strained—increased demands for health care, for sanitation, for water are taxing the capacity of local infrastructure in communities that have witnessed a rapid rise in population in a very short timeframe. Many host families are stretching their already limited resources. The UN refugee agency, UNHCR, reports that more and more people are moving from host communities to the camps, and is expanding camps to alleviate overcrowding.[2] Four camps are still receiving IDPs with 300 to 500 families arriving daily on average, and others are full.[3] People in camps are easier to assist than those living among urban populations and lodged with family and friends. And a different kind of assistance is needed. For example, ensuring health care for urban-area displaced means increasing the capacity of existing local health clinics rather than building clinics in IDP camps. The overwhelming majority of IDPs surveyed (80%) in host communities in Mardan and Swabi districts of NWFP are facing diarrheal and other health problems after displacement.[4] In addition, the approaching monsoon season (July) stands to bring a surge in diseases at the same time that the UN is warning humanitarian aid, including medical supplies and drug stocks, [5] could run out without additional funding. While it is natural for the UN and the international community to focus on the camps for which they have some responsibility, there are dangers in not supporting the local service providers and infrastructure. President Asif Ali Zardari has called for the focus of IDP assistance to be extended to those outside of camps as well as to reconstruction. The risk of host communities’ resentment against the IDPs is increased when they perceive that their own ability to access services is diminished by their presence. While there is a great deal of research on refugee and (to a lesser extent) IDP camps, the subject of “host families” is the least-researched aspect of the displacement experience. And frankly, it is more difficult to raise funds to support staffing-up a local Pakistani clinic than to raise money to build a new clinic for IDPs.

4. This is an emergency situation where an immediate response is needed. The Pakistani government’s capacity to respond to emergency situations is limited. The Pakistani military seems to be taking the lead on the government side, but its involvement raises questions about the impact of this role on its military mission as well as on popular perceptions of the military’s engagement.[6] The UN and international NGOs have mobilized quickly, but the response is still slow in the face of the need. There are both human and political consequences to a slow response. We know that whenever there is a vacuum in the provision of assistance, a variety of groups rush to fill the gap. In Lebanon, Hezbollah provided on-the-ground, rapid assistance to hundreds of families displaced by Israeli shelling in 2006. In Iraq, militia groups quickly developed humanitarian wings to assist people affected by the violence when the UN and international NGOs pulled out. It is no surprise that there are reports of militant Pakistani groups moving in to the vacuum.[7] At the same time, there are experienced Pakistani NGOs and a vibrant civil society that are willing and able to provide the necessary assistance. Identifying and working with these groups could yield major dividends—not only in denying opportunities to radical groups—but also in supporting local NGOs that will continue to serve their communities.

The UN’s $543 million appeal for immediate aid to Pakistan is critically underfunded, at only 26% with $140 million in funds received—while only a further $43 million has been pledged.[8] The US government responded quickly to the IDP crisis with a pledge of $110 million—soon followed by an additional pledge of $200 million which has to be approved by Congress. This is a very positive development and I am encouraged by President Obama’s insistence that more aid will be forthcoming in the longer term. This is urgently needed. But as important as the overall quantity of aid is the question of how it is delivered. If the international community, led by the US, delivers aid quickly and appropriately, it could pay dividends in terms of both public perceptions (now rabidly anti-American) and in increased stability.

5. In addition to the needs of the displaced, there are also needs of those who did not flee the fighting and have remained. For example in Swat some 40,000 did not flee, according to estimates by the International Committee of the Red Cross (ICRC).[9] They also face a precarious situation and currently only the Pakistani military and the ICRC have access to them.

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6. In the immediate term, questions about humanitarian access, about civilian versus military aid delivery and about the role of insurgents will be tough to sort out. We can already predict, based on experience in other situations, that the assistance provided will not be enough and coordination will be inadequate. But these issues, difficult as they are, will be much easier than questions about the longer-term. It is a fact of life that it is much easier to mobilize resources for an emergency than for longer-term recovery and reconstruction. Perhaps the greatest weakness of the UN system is in the area now known as “early recovery”—or the transition from emergency relief to long-term development. Development actors are generally slow to respond in the aftermath of a conflict. In Pakistan, there is an opportunity to prove this traditional wisdom wrong. For example, humanitarian and development actors could move quickly to intensify the work of the Early Recovery cluster and to plan with Pakistani counterparts for support to local capacity. For example, education is generally not considered a lifesaving activity and is generally postponed until the situation is stabilized. Indeed, funding shortfalls are impeding the extension of education services to children in host communities—and over 300,000 of them stand to be affected by IDPs sheltering in schools. More and more schools are occupied by displaced families, and 60 percent of them in the Swat district have been destroyed according to the District Department of Education.[10] But education is important for many families and there is an opportunity for the government to demonstrate its relevance to local populations which have been underserved for various reasons. For example, presently some 96% of women in SWAT are illiterate.

7. While displacement can occur suddenly—in the case of Pakistan, reportedly two million people in the span of two weeks—it almost always takes much longer to resolve displacement. Moreover, the longer people are displaced, the longer it takes for them to return or to find other solutions. The expectation is that most of the displaced will return quickly to their homes once the insurgents have been defeated. But there are troubling reports that while the Pakistani military is doing a good job of ‘clearing’ the insurgents out, they are less successful at ‘holding’ and are not yet involved in ‘building.’ We don’t yet know the extent of civilian casualties and physical destruction of the homes or areas from which the IDPs come.

8. Returns need to be sustainable. There are reports that some of the displaced who returned to their communities have left again because of insecurity. There are also reports that the military has told IDPs that it is safe to return—when it isn’t. Army commanders have reportedly said that return to Mingora could begin June 17, once water and electricity are restored.[11] Human Rights Watch and the International Campaign to Ban Landmines are reporting that landmines have been placed in the Swat Valley, including Mingora.[12] A fundamental principle of international law is the right of IDPs to make informed and voluntary decisions as to whether or when to return.


It is in everyone’s interest for the IDPs to return quickly and for displacement not to become a protracted situation. Under the Guiding Principles for Internal Displacement, there are three solutions for displacement: return to the communities of origin, settlement in the area to which they have been displaced and settlement in another part of the country. The vast majority of those displaced by recent fighting want to go home. But the longer they are displaced, the less likely it is that they will return. If displacement lasts two or three years, for example, it is likely that many of the displaced will either settle where they are or move to other Pakistani communities and cities. This has implications for the IDPs themselves, for the counterinsurgency campaigns (it’s harder to clear, hold and build when the people aren’t there), and larger social implications as displacement to urban areas creates new demands on the state.

9. The displaced are not a homogeneous group. Women and men have different needs and different resources. As the majority of those in camps are women and children, this presents clear protection concerns as well as needs—including in terms of the organization of the camps, access to food and even to latrines—with cultural considerations also to be taken into account in the relief response.[13] There are troubling reports of sexual and gender-based violence in the camps and reports, of women being confined to their sweltering tents by militant groups.[14] Some fathers have left their families in camps while they go off to stay with a relative in a city or to try to earn some money by moving to areas where jobs might be found. If displacement lasts very long, generational differences will come into play. Typically parents and older relatives dream only of returning home; but their children, particularly when exposed to urban life, usually develop different plans for the future. From Lebanon to Colombia, we have seen that in protracted displacement situations, the children and adolescents do not want to return to their parents’ communities.

10. The way in which governments and the international community responds to displacement (and to disasters generally) has political consequences. Think of the political fall-out from Katrina in the US or of Cyclone Nargis in Myanmar on the natural disaster front. Think of Syria opening its borders to Iraqi refugees and Pakistan’s hospitality to Afghan refugees for more than 20 years. These actions, often motivated by compassion and traditions of hospitality have long-term political consequences. Aid itself becomes a resource to be contested (and sometimes fought over) or can be a resource for reconciliation.[15] There are occasions when insurgent groups take advantage of displacement – occasions which Pakistan knows very well as a result of its decades-long experience with Afghan refugee camps. It is in the interests of the Pakistani government and the international community for humanitarian assistance to be delivered swiftly, efficiently and impartially. And it is in everyone’s interest—particularly those who have been displaced—for conditions to be created so that the IDPs can return to their homes in security and dignity as soon as possible.

[1] Karen DeYoung, “Obama Seeks More Aid For Displaced Pakistanis,” Washington Post, 4 June 2009, available: http://www.washingtonpost.com/wp-dyn/content/article/2009/06/03/AR2009060303762.html?wprss=rss_world

[2] UNHCR, “More and more Pakistani displaced move to camps as needs grow,” 10 June 2009, available: http://www.alertnet.org/thenews/newsdesk/UNHCR/08f1a477c986fb1c1c29c331c17caa95.htm.

[3] OCHA, Pakistan: NWFP Displacement Situation Report No. 04, 11 June 2009.

[4] Save the Children Alliance, Rapid assessment of IDPs in host communities in Mardan and Swabi Districts, NWFP Pakistan, 31 May 2009, available: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/MINE-7SQ4K4?OpenDocument.

[5] WHO, Health Action in Crises – Highlights No 260, 01–07 June 2009, available: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900sid/EGUA-7SURUV/$File/full_report.pdf.

[6] Elizabeth Ferris, “Civilian Humanitarian Action Needed in Pakistan,” Brookings Institution-Bern University Project on Internal Displacement, 15 May, available: https://www.brookings.edu/idp.

[7] ICG, Pakistan’s IDP Crisis: Challenges and Opportunities, Asia Briefing N°93, 3 June 2009, available: http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6129&l=2. Samina Ahmed, “Winning the Hearts and Minds of Pakistan’s Displaced,” GlobalPost, 26 May 2009, available: http://www.crisisgroup.org/home/index.cfm?id=6115&l=1. Foreign Policy, “Another consequence of the Peshawar bombing,” 9 June 2009, available: http://blog.foreignpolicy.com/posts/2009/06/09/an_other_consequence_of_the_peshawar_bombing.

[8] UN OCHA, “Flash Appeal: Pakistan Humanitarian Response Plan (Revised) 2008-2009, List of Appeal Projects (grouped by Cluster), with funding status of each as of 10-June-2009,” available: http://ocha.unog.ch/fts/reports/daily/ocha_R32_A829___0906100204.pdf

[9] ICRC, “Pakistan: thousands need food, water and medical care,” 9 June 2009, available: http://www.icrc.org/web/eng/siteeng0.nsf/htmlall/pakistan-update-090609.

[10] OCHA, Pakistan: NWFP Displacement Situation Report No. 04, 11 June 2009; OCHA, Pakistan: NWFP Displacement Situation Report No. 03, 5 June 2009.

[11] Reuters, “Security, services needed before Pakistan’s displaced return: Aid agencies,” 8 June 2009, available: http://in.reuters.com/article/topNews/idINIndia-40164920090608.

[12] IRIN, “PAKISTAN: Fear amid reports of landmine-laying in Mingora,” 26 May 2009, available: http://www.irinnews.org/Report.aspx?ReportId=84555.

[13] See Church World Service, “News backgrounder: Displaced Pakistani women face myriad challenges,” 10 June 2009, available: http://www.reliefweb.int/rw/rwb.nsf/db900SID/AMMF-7SVMC8?OpenDocument.

[15] Mary Anderson, Do No Harm: How Aid Can Support Peace – or War, Boulder, Colorado: Lynne Reinner Publishers, 1999.