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UNHCR chief ends mission to Pakistan as number of displaced surpasses 1 million


UNHCR chief ends mission to Pakistan as number of displaced surpasses 1 million

UN refugee chief António Guterres concludes a three-day mission to Pakistan in which he called for urgent and massive international help for more than 1.17 million people uprooted by fighting in the north-west.
18 May 2009
UNHCR High Commissioner António Guterres visits IDPs, such as this little girl, in Kacha Gari camp near Peshawar. IDPs fled their homes in tribal areas last August. The camp hosts 15,000 IDPs.

ISLAMABAD, Pakistan, May 18 (UNHCR) - UN refugee chief António Guterres wrapped up a three-day visit to Pakistan at the weekend after calling for urgent and massive international help for more than 1.17 million people uprooted by fighting in the north-west of the country.

Describing the continuing Pakistan displacement crisis as one of the most dramatic of recent times, Guterres said humanitarian workers are struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement and warned of potential destabilization if 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 before leaving for Geneva on Sunday. "Leaving this population without the support they need - with such massive numbers - could constitute an enormous destabilizing factor."

The number of displaced people registered since May 2 by authorities with help from UNHCR climbed above the 1 million mark over the weekend and continues to rise rapidly. Most of the displaced are staying with relatives or friends, placing huge economic and social strains on the country. More than 130,000 others are staying in camps supported by UNHCR. The 1.17 million recently registered join another 555,000 Pakistanis displaced in earlier fighting since last August.

During his mission, Guterres met several displaced people in visits to sweltering camps in the Swabi area, north-west of Islamabad, and in Kachagari near the city of Peshawar on Saturday. All were anxious to go home, he said.

"We are witnessing an amazing number of people being displaced," the High Commissioner said. "Each person is a special case. Each person has a story to tell. Each person has suffered a lot, having to abandon their community, sometimes their families, houses and properties, coming with nothing, and sometimes having to witness family or friends die. The amount of suffering needs to be recognised by the international community."

Guterres said both the Government of Pakistan and the United Nations would issue appeals this week seeking funds from donor nations to aid the displaced and the families hosting them. He predicted the overall figure requested by the UN agencies would be in the hundreds of millions of dollars and called on the donors to remember the decades of generosity that Pakistan showed to millions of Afghan refugees on its territory.

"I appeal to the international community to respond massively," he said. "It's not only a matter of generosity, it's a matter of enlightened self-interest."

Asked if he thought donors would provide such massive funding in these tough economic times, Guterres said there was a moral requirement to do so.

"We all know that we live in a moment in which there is a huge economic and financial crisis," he said. "But the same international community that has found the money to rescue financial system has the same obligation to rescue people in need."

The UN refugee agency, which has worked in Pakistan for more than three decades, has been fast to respond to the latest humanitarian crisis. It has been helping with the establishment of displacement camps, providing shelter and distributing tonnes of aid items as part of a united UN response.

Last week, 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. Guterres said, however, that the vast majority of aid items to be distributed by UNHCR would be procured in Pakistan itself.

By Ron Redmond in Islamabad, Pakistan