Flood of displaced civilians in Pakistan surpasses 1.45 million

In northern Pakistan’s massive displacement crisis, the number of people who have fled fighting in the north-west surges to 1.45 million.

A displaced Pakistani girl carries a bucket of rice as her sister follows in Yar Hussain camp.  © UNHCR/A.Fazzina

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 19 (UNHCR) - The flood of displaced people fleeing the conflict in and around north-west Pakistan's Swat Valley is the largest and swiftest to take place anywhere in the world in recent years. According to Pakistan's North West Frontier Province (NWFP) Social Welfare Department, 1,454,377 people have been registered since just May 2. The number of registration centres now stands at 89.

UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres, who met some of displaced people during a three-day visit to Pakistan last week, has called for urgent and massive international help from governments and other donors for those left homeless by fighting.

Guterres said at the weekend that humanitarian workers were struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement and warned of the consequences if the uprooted people - and tens of thousands of host families trying to care for them - don't get help fast.

"It's like trying to catch something that's moving ahead of us because the number of people on the move every day is so big and the response is never enough," he told reporters on Sunday. "Leaving this population without the support they need - with such massive numbers - could constitute an enormous destabilizing factor."

Ron Redmond, UNHCR's chief spokesperson, said Tuesday of the massive displacement crisis, "We haven't seen anything so big and so fast in years."

In addition to calling for international help, UNHCR is encouraging local donations. This week, the UNHCR office in Islamabad set up a dedicated bank account at Standard Chartered Bank to receive cash donations from the public for its operations.

Separately, it established a relief bank and distribution centre in the NWFP town of Nowshera to receive and hand out non-cash, so called "in kind," contributions such as pillows, soap, simple water coolers and new summer clothing. Additional relief banks are planned for the cities of Islamabad, Lahore and Karachi.

The vast majority of the 1.45 million recently displaced - 1,323,427 - are living outside of camps set up for the displaced. UNHCR is stepping up its aid to them, in particular. On Tuesday, UNHCR's local NGO partner, SRSP (Sarhad Rural Support Programme), distributed kitchen sets, plastic mats, buckets and jerry cans to displaced people staying in three schools in Mardan district.

In the NWFP district of Mardan alone, at least 67 schools are hosting displaced families. Meanwhile, rising temperatures and the onset of summer are posing a fresh set of challenges. UNHCR, for example, is urgently seeking shade cloth and poles to construct sun screens over and between tents as part of a "summerization" programme.