That's what Audil Rashid and Mian Nazish Adnan sound the alarm about in the July 4, 2009 issue of the British medical journal The Lancet, following their recent visits to camps set up to house internally displaced persons (IDPs) fleeing the conflict zone in Pakistan's North-West Frontier Province. While Americans celebrate the Independence Day weekend with barbeques and fireworks, Rashid and Adnan paint a grim picture of the crisis in Pakistan:
From the very beginning it was evident that the government had underestimated the human cost of the military operation. As several camps were hastily set up to cater to the massive influx of IDPs, reports about the lack of even basic amenities in these camps began to emerge. Excessive heat (daytime temperatures soaring to 40°C and above), no electricity, food and water shortages, poor sanitation, and lack of proper health care are some of the immediate problems being faced by IDPs....
Lack of proper toilets and sanitation, unsafe drinking water, infrequent bathing, high air temperatures, inadequate disposal of solid waste, and the complete absence of a proper drainage system at the refugee camps are the main causes of worry for relief health workers. “This is the making of a disaster. These camps have been established on open tracts of land used for agricultural purposes. There are snakes, rats, and scorpions here. At night, when it is pitch dark because of no electricity, people sleep on the ground and are vulnerable to snakebites”, said M Idrees Mirza, a doctor who runs a private clinic in Rawalpindi city and is working voluntarily in the camps.
“Conditions in these camps make them perfect breeding areas for mosquitoes and many varieties of insects. In my opinion, there is a very high probability of an outbreak of any disease like mumps, measles, scabies, malaria, diarrhoea, polio, and leishmaniasis”, said another health worker working for a respected NGO who spoke to The Lancet on condition of anonymity. “We need medicines, doctors, and qualified health workers. And we need them urgently. Any delays might result in a human catastrophe of unimaginable proportions.”....
Eager to establish its writ over the Swat Valley, the government seems to have created a health crisis which it may not be able to overcome. [link; registration req'd]
Two letters in the same issue of The Lancet offer additional details. But as dire as the situation has become within the camps, K.M. Bile and Assad Hafeez note in one of those letters that the government camps house only 20 percent of the IDPs -- who may now total as many as 2.5 million individuals, almost half of them children:
Without counting the great costs to themselves, families in the local community are looking after more than 1·73 million people, in accordance with the local tradition of hospitality. Most displaced people have been accommodated within family homes; others are in schools, mosques, and other community buildings.... Although a proportion of host families are related to or friends of the displaced people, many have welcomed strangers. [link; registration req'd]
With close to two million IDPs being cared for by these private "host families," humanitarian workers have struggled to respond to an "invisible emergency," as Stephanie Nolen (in the Globe & Mail) and Sabrina Tavernise (in the New York Times) have vividly reported:
“We can barely meet the basic humanitarian need right now – access to water and sanitation,” said Graham Strong, a Canadian who heads the World Vision program in Pakistan. “People need food. People need shelter. One family I met put 90 people in two rooms.”...
There is a predictable scramble to provide tents and food to the 276,000 people spread among 27 refugee camps. However, it is much more difficult to reach those who have gone to what are called “host families,” even though their needs are every bit as urgent. Mr. Strong called theirs “an invisible emergency.” The host families strain their own often-limited resources to feed and clothe the new arrivals; their sole toilet or water source becomes quickly overwhelmed. They often start to sell their own assets – at prices suddenly sharply reduced, as everyone else does the same – to care for their guests. And most, Mr. Strong noted, were poor to begin with. [link]
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They are the invisible refugees, and their numbers have swollen the populations of towns like this one northwest of the capital, Islamabad, multiplying burdens on already sagging roads, schools, sewers and water supplies, and, not least, on their host families.
Most fled suddenly, without cash or belongings, and many have limited access to the millions of dollars in international aid that has been flowing in.
“People aren’t noticing them,” said Michael McGrath, Pakistan director of Save the Children, an aid organization that has focused on refugees outside of camps. “Their needs are not being met.” [link]
So how has the international community responded to the world's largest and most rapid displacement of persons since the Rwandan genocide in 1994?
Major Western countries, after applauding Pakistan's military crackdown on Islamic extremists in the Swat valley in the country's northwest, haven't pledged the money needed to resettle the population now that the fighting is mostly over, and humanitarian organizations fear that 2 million people will be sent back home before it's safe to go.
Unless the United States and other allies provide the required money to reconstruct Swat, Pakistan risks losing the "hearts and minds" of those who had to flee the operation that fought the Islamic extremists who'd overrun the region. Islamabad doesn't have the money, Pakistani officials said. [link]
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Eric Laroche, the World Health Organisation's assistant director-general for humanitarian crises, said the international community was failing to deliver the needed funds [for the refugee camps].
So far, money delivered and pledges from donor nations covered only 27 per cent of the $37 million, he said....
‘Within two to three weeks we won't have any more essential drugs to be treating the people in the camps,’ Laroche said. ‘It is not normal, and I don't even find it acceptable.’ [link]
Action for a Progressive Pakistan has partnered with the SINGH Foundation to raise money to support the humanitarian relief efforts for IDPs fleeing the conflict. Over at the blog All Things Pakistan, readers have raised approximately $8400 to support IDP relief activities by the Edhi Foundation and UNHCR. A list of other fundraising appeals may be found here. Please share information about other community-based initiatives to support relief efforts in the comments section.
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