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Pakistan: displaced people returning home must be safe and have access to food and basic services

16-07-2009 Operational Update

As thousands of displaced people (IDPs) return home, their safety and ability to live in dignity are paramount. The ICRC continues to assist people affected by the fighting, including thousands of displaced, but its ability to do so depends on safe and unimpeded access.

  ©Reuters/F. Mahmood    
Internally displaced people dismantle their tent as they prepare to return home.    

  ©Reuters/A. Latif    
Swabi District. Internally displaced people gather their belongings in preparation for the journey back home in the Swat valley.    

  ©Reuters/F. Mahmood    
An internally displaced man loads his bags onto a bus as he prepares for the journey back home.    

On 11 July, the Pakistani government announced that over two million people who had fled the fighting in the Malakand Division of the North-West Frontier Province could return to their homes. Over 10,000 of them are estimated to have left camps since the government-organized operation to take them home began on 13 July.

" It is absolutely essential that displaced people be able to return to their homes as soon as conditions permit, but families who choose to return must be safe and have access to food and basic public services, " said Pascal Cuttat, head of the ICRC delegation in Pakistan. " The Pakistani authorities have a responsibility not only to guarantee the safety and dignity of displaced people, but also to ensure that their return is voluntary and based on their own assessment of the security and economic situation in their home areas. " As a neutral and independent humanitarian organization, the ICRC is not taking part in the government-run return programme. However, it is and will be monitoring the return process, independently of the authorities.

The ICRC is working closely with the Pakistan Red Crescent Society and other partners within the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to provide assistance for over 260,000 displaced people, regardless of whether they choose to return to their homes or remain where they are.

Thousands returning to areas affected by fighting  

Thousands of people leaving camps since 13 July, including many who had been living in the seven camps supported by the ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent, have been go ing to Buner and Swat districts, in Malakand Division, on government-provided buses or by their own means. They have often been given police escorts and accompanied by government-provided ambulances. Many displaced families who lived with host families, especially those in Mardan district, have also started to return home, usually on their own.

The security situation remains volatile in parts of the North-West Frontier Province. The local economy has been severely disrupted by the violence and many families are likely to face hardship as they return. In Swat, Buner and Dir, where most banks are still closed, commodities are scarce and expensive. In Timergara, in Dir district, vegetables cost as much as four times more than before the crisis.

In Buner, where security has substantially improved, it is estimated that up to 50% of all people displaced from the district have returned. Despite the curfew in place, many homes destroyed and the damaged infrastructure, life is rapidly returning to normal in Daggar, the district's capital. However, access to water, electricity and other basic services remains difficult outside the major towns. Most marble factories, an important source of income and jobs in the district, remain closed.

In Dir district, the ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent are continuing to distribute food and other items to over 116,000 displaced people staying both in camps and with host families. In addition, they are further improving access to clean water and sanitation in camps in the district.

Assistance continues in camps  

The ICRC continues to work closely with the Pakistan Red Crescent and other partner organizations in the International Red Cross and Red Crescent Movement to assist tens of thousands of people who have yet to return to their homes. In Shah Mansoor, where over 20,000 peopl e still live in a camp supported by the ICRC and the Pakistan Red Crescent, the organizations are building additional sanitation blocks and are upgrading camp infrastructure in anticipation of the upcoming monsoon season. All families living in the camp are now able to cook their own meals after receiving food, bowls, pans, stoves and firewood.

The ICRC continues to help displaced families restore links with relatives. Demand has been particularly high in the Jalozai camp for displaced people – the largest in the North-West Frontier Province – where over 110,000 people are currently staying. " Many people had to leave in a hurry, some without their mobile phones, and have been separated from their relatives for weeks, " said David Goetschmann, the ICRC delegate in charge of tracing services in the province. " We trace relatives for them and, when needed, offer free phone calls. "

The ICRC has begun raising awareness among displaced people living in camps of the dangers of mines and other unexploded ordnance which they might find when they return to their home areas. Children in particular are taught to recognize and avoid these weapons.

The ICRC will continue to help people displaced by fighting in the Malakand Division, whether they choose to return or not. Assistance to returnees and the population who remained in areas affected by fighting will however depend on safe and unimpeded access.

For further information, please contact:
  Sébastien Brack, ICRC Islamabad, tel: +92 300 850 81 38
  Sitara Jabeen, ICRC Islamabad, tel: +92 300 850 56 93
  Simon Schorno, ICRC Geneva, tel: +41 79 251 93 02

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