The humanitarian effort to help millions in north-west Pakistan uprooted by clashes between the Government and insurgents is at a critical stage, the top United Nations relief official said today, as the national authorities unveiled their return plan for the internally displaced persons (IDPs).
We are at a critical moment, Under-Secretary-General for Humanitarian Affairs John Holmes told reporters today in the capital, Islamabad, wrapping up a four-day visit to the South Asian nation.
The suffering we see here is every bit as real and as deserving of help as suffering we see elsewhere, he said, calling for donor support.
Mr. Holmes, who also serves as Emergency Relief Coordinator, lauded the Government and humanitarian partners for a commendable job in the circumstances in tackling a massive and very rapid displacement crisis.
More than 2 million Pakistanis have escaped the conflict between Government forces and militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the vast majority are either sheltering in schools and other public buildings, with host families or in rental accommodations.
While acknowledging the generosity and selflessness of those who have taken in the IDPs, Mr. Holmes underscored the need for greater efforts to assist both the uprooted and their host communities, as preparations are under way for the coming monsoon season and for further military operations which could lead to more displacement.
In the village of Jamal Garhi, in Mardan district, which he visited, the number of IDPs rivalled that of residents, with one family hosting nearly 100 displaced people.
I was struck by the many, many children I saw who are living in abnormal and unfamiliar situations but who are trying to lead normal lives as children despite that, " said Mr. Holmes, who held talks with President Asif Zardari, donors and representatives from civil society and non-governmental organizations (NGOs) while in Islamabad.
During his meetings with authorities, the Under-Secretary-General said he was told that more than half of the IDPs had already returned home, noting that he saw first-hand in Buner that life, to some extent, is returning to normal.
But in areas where the UN has no access due to security concerns, the situation is far more difficult to assess, he said, adding that returns must be genuinely voluntary and can only happen when basic services have been restored and it is safe for the uprooted to repatriate.
Yesterday, the Pakistani Government announced the first stage of a four-phase programme for IDPs to return to some parts of Buner and Swat, beginning as early as next Monday.
Authorities also said that the uprooted living in camps would be given the first opportunity to return to their homes.
The returns will be in line with recent guidelines, developed jointly with the UN and partner agencies, based on the principles of voluntary, safe and dignified returns, Ron Redmond, spokesperson for the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), said today.
Prior to returning on a voluntary basis, internally displaced people should also have access to proper information on the security situation in the area of origin; the magnitude of destruction; and the availability of basic services and facilities, " he added.
The UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) reported today that the number of IDPs living in camps has dropped from 260,000 in mid-June to nearly 220,000 as of 8 July, mainly due to spontaneous returns.
The UN World Food Programme (WFP) continues to distribute food, having reached 1.7 million displaced people in June. The agency has also started handing out supplies to returning families.
For its part, the UN World Health Organization (WHO) is buying 22 ambulances and millions of doses of medicines, as well as building new warehouses, to boost health care for the IDPs and host communities.
The agency is moving to deliver the supplies to health-care providers before the start of the monsoon season later this month.
WHO has already provided medicines to treat nearly 800,000 people since last August, when conflict and flooding first started forcing people from their homes in NWFP. But with needs on the rise, the agency is planning to distribute enough supplies to treat at least 3 million people.