UNHCR begins to register displaced Pakistanis in urban centres

UNHCR begins to register tens of thousands of people who fled fighting in Pakistan's rugged north and sought shelter in urban centres.

Workers from Sharp, a partner of UNHCR, register an internally displaced man in Pakistan.   © UNHCR/A.Shahzad

BAHARA KAHAU, Pakistan, April 21 (UNHCR) - The UN refugee agency has begun to register thousands of people who fled fighting in Pakistan's rugged north in recent months and sought shelter in Islamabad and other urban centres.

The exercise began on Monday, when UNHCR registered displaced families in the suburban settlement of Bahara Kahau, located just a few minutes drive from the refugee agency's Islamabad office. They have been trying to earn enough to live on by working at brick and cement works, building sites and markets.

UNHCR began the exercise, at the request of the Pakistani government, to establish the number of people who have moved to urban areas after fleeing fighting between the army and militants in the Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) and the Swat district of North West Frontier Province (NWFP).

The focus of the humanitarian response to the displacement crisis has been in NWFP, where most people have fled, but more attention is turning to those who have moved further afield, including towns and cities. It has been a challenge to identify the displaced among the existing ranks of the urban poor.

According to a preliminary survey carried out last month, an estimated 82,500 internally displaced people (IDPs) are living in major urban centres, including 7,500 in the capital, Islamabad.

Over the next two months, registration teams from UNHCR's partner agencies will work with community elders to identify and register uprooted people in the capital, Lahore and other cities of Punjab province. They will move to Karachi at a later stage.

While the IDPs tend to reside in the cheaper areas of cities, rents are still high for the displaced who are away from their homes and traditional support networks.

Amir* from Mohmand Agency in FATA was one of the first to be registered in Bahara Kahau on Monday. Sitting on coloured straw mats in an otherwise spartan room, the 35-year-old said he had fled his village six months ago.

He had a relatively good life in Mohmand, owning his own house, growing wheat and vegetables, and digging wells for extra income. Now, he struggles to find poorly paid work as a daily labourer. "If we get work, good; if not, we just pass the time," Amir explained.

But Amir is only just scraping by - he has to buy food for his family of 10 and pays 3,500 rupees (US$50) per month to rent a three-room house. He cannot afford to send the children to school. He said he had come forward to be registered in the hope that it will lead to assistance in the form of food or money.

UNHCR Assistant Representative in Pakistan Kilian Kleinschmidt said the registration exercise was a critical step in finding out more about the displaced living in cities. "As the IDP crisis continues, we need to find out more about where people have fled beyond the main areas around [the city of] Peshawar and the lower parts of NWFP, where our assistance is focused," he said.

"From our preliminary assessment, it seems that in addition to the newly displaced, longer-term settlers from FATA have recently been joined by their families who are fleeing the current conflict. These families will also be eligible for registration," Kleinschmidt added.

He said the registration process would be an essential tool in helping people return home when the security situation improved. Despite peace agreements in Swat and FATA's Bajaur Agency, many are not ready to go back.

Meanwhile, Amir listens avidly to the radio for news about the situation in his native Mohmand Agency. "We have land at home and livestock, which we are worried about. But I don't want to go home until it is safe," he stressed.

The Pakistani government, with UNHCR help, has registered more than 550,000 people in NWFP since last October. More than 80 percent of them live in rented accommodation or with host families, while the remainder live in 11 camps.

* Name changed for protection reasons.

By Ariane Rummery in Bahara Kahau, Pakistan