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UNHCR's Guterres warns of humanitarian disaster as latest Pakistan displacement tops 900,000

UNHCR's Guterres warns of humanitarian disaster as latest Pakistan displacement tops 900,000

UNHCR chief says the international community must mount an immediate and massive humanitarian response to help hundreds of thousands of Pakistanis.

15 May 2009
A group of displaced people at a camp near Peshawar. The number of people fleeing to safety in north-west Pakistan continues to grow.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 15 (UNHCR) - As the number of people uprooted this month by the current conflict in north-west Pakistan neared 1 million, UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres said Friday that the speed and size of the displacement made it "absolutely essential" that the international community mount an immediate and massive humanitarian response.

"We and all of our partners are doing everything we can to meet the huge and growing humanitarian needs, but with the numbers of newly displaced now approaching a million just since May 2, the challenges are overwhelming," said Guterres.

"Even today, more people are coming out of the conflict area with the lifting of the curfew. Many are fleeing with nothing. It will not be possible to meet their needs without massive and rapid help from the international community. And if that help doesn't come, it will be a humanitarian disaster." Thousands were leaving the Swat district, focus of the conflict between the armed forces and militants, after the government lifted a curfew on Friday.

Guterres, on the second day of a three-day mission to Pakistan to show solidarity with the Pakistani people and to assess his agency's humanitarian response, noted that the almost 1 million displaced people so far registered this month by authorities and UNHCR are in addition to another 550,000 uprooted people who fled fighting since last August. According to the latest figures, 987,140 people have been registered from the current influx, including 907,298 outside camps and 79,842 in camps.

When asked by reporters if the huge numbers of displaced people could destabilize Pakistan, Guterres replied that while UNHCR focuses on the humanitarian aspects of the current crisis, "obviously this is a region where the geo-political context cannot be ignored."

"This is a very large displaced population generated in a very short time," he said. "Most of them are currently depending on relatives and friends for help and are not in camps, thus creating huge social and economic pressures. But if these people - both the displaced and the many Pakistanis trying to help them - do not receive rapid international support, I fear there is a very real possibility of further destabilization."

After spending Thursday meeting with displaced people in new UNHCR-supported camps north-west of the Pakistani capital, Guterres spent Friday in Islamabad meeting with government officials, UNHCR's non-governmental organization partners and representatives of donor countries. He also witnessed the signing of an agreement between the government and UN agencies to support Pakistani and refugee and IDP families in areas hosting uprooted people.

The High Commissioner said Pakistan's long history of generosity to some 5 million Afghan refugees deserved recognition and it was "high time the international community" responded to help Pakistanis now facing displacement themselves.

North-west Pakistan

The UN refugee agency has been fast to respond to the humanitarian crisis in north-west Pakistan. UNHCR has been providing shelter and distributing aid as part of a united UN response.

On Tuesday, UNHCR airlifted 120 tonnes of additional relief supplies from its regional stockpile in Dubai. The chartered aircraft carried 10,000 mosquito nets, 14,000 plastic sheets for emergency shelters, 1,500 plastic rolls to build walls and privacy screens in camps, and two portable warehouses.

By Ron Redmond in Islamabad, Pakistan