The number of people displaced by fighting between Pakistani security forces and the Taliban reached two million yesterday as the U.N. warns the conflict is turning into the largest displacement crisis since the Rwandan genocide.
Figures released yesterday by the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) show that 1,454,377 internally displaced people have been registered in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province in the month of May alone.
This figure is in addition to another 553,916 displaced people who have registered in the province since August 2008. The vast majority of the IDPs are living outside of camps, according to the North-West Frontier Province’s Social Welfare Department.
"The dimension of this crisis is just unbelievable and the speed at which people have been fleeing is breathtaking," William Spindler of UNHCR told The Media Line from the organization’s headquarters in Geneva.
"We’re talking about 1.5 million people displaced in two weeks and over 2 million in less than a year… it’s the fastest and most massive movement of people since Rwanda."
Pakistani government officials expressed concern that the number of IDPs may rise by another 500,000 in the coming days as fighting continued.
"We are in the middle of a serious crisis: on the one hand the Taliban are spreading from one area to another, on the other hand the civilian population is getting displaced by the fighting," Iqbal Khattak, bureau chief of the Daily Times in Peshawar, Pakistan, told The Media Line.
"This province is financially very poor. Its infrastructure has been badly damaged… It was previously a front line in the war against communism and now again in the war against terrorism," Khattak said.
The vast majority of people fleeing the fighting have found temporary shelter with host families or in local schools. Local NGOs, assisted by various U.N. agencies, have been setting up sunscreens and tents, and are distributing buckets, jerry cans, kitchen sets, blankets and plastic mats.
"A large number of these internally displaced people are children," Khattak said. "The weather has not been friendly… Putting these little children in tents is like roasting a chicken in the oven."
Pakistani authorities said Tuesday that the government had enough food to provide for the refugees, but needed donations of fans and high-energy biscuits.
Both Pakistan and the U.N. are appealing to the international community for financial assistance to aid those displaced and the families hosting them.
Pakistani President Asif Ali Zardari recently secured extensive funding for the country’s war with the Taliban. Following a whirlwind tour of Libya, France, the UK and the U.S., the president returned to Pakistan yesterday with commitments for $1.9 billion in aid from the U.S. for fighting the Taliban. The UK promised £640 million over the next four years.
The office of Pakistani Prime Minister Shaukat Tarin, however, warned yesterday that beyond the military aid Pakistan, needed $600-800 million to cope with the refugee situation.
The United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs put the figure at $455 million. This is in addition to $88 million already provided or committed to the current crisis.
As humanitarian workers struggle to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement, locals say the displaced people have become increasingly critical of the international response.
"We don’t see a larger participation of the international community," Khattak said. "I don’t think we should be more concerned about the nuclear weapons of Pakistan than the people of Pakistan."
But international officials said the immediate response had been successful.
"So far the international response has been speedy and effective mainly because we have had a major operation in Pakistan for decades," Spindler added.
"But in the long term these people are without jobs, their children need to go to school and we need to ensure that the response continues.
"At the moment the eyes of the world and the media are on Pakistan. From our experience, this attention will not last long, but when the attention moves to another crises, people in Pakistan will still need support. That’s what worries us," he said.