Pakistan's Refugees Swell As U.S. Policy Criticized

As Pakistan mounts a major ground offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban militants, hundreds of thousands of Pakistani refugees remain in dire need of emergency relief. That's the take-away from a report, expected later this month, from the humanitarian advocacy group Refugees International. The group's findings are described as being highly critical of U.S. policy in Pakistan. Host Liane Hansen speaks with Patrick Duplat of Refugees International on the group's recent trip to Pakistan.

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LIANE HANSEN, host:

As Pakistan mounts a major ground offensive against al-Qaida and Taliban militants, hundreds of thousands of Pakistani refugees remain in dire need of emergency relief. That's the takeaway from a report expected later this month from the humanitarian advocacy group Refugees International. The group's findings are described as being highly critical of U.S. policy in Pakistan.

Patrick Duplat is the field researcher for Refugees International, and he contributed to this new report. He's just back from a trip to Pakistan, and he's in our studios. Patrick, welcome.

Mr. PATRICK DUPLAT (Field Researcher, Refugees International): Thank you.

HANSEN: What parts of Pakistan did you visit? And give us your impression of the aid efforts there.

Mr. DUPLAT: We were able to go in Pakistan's northwest and Peshawar, but also Mardan, where hundreds of thousands of IDPs - internally displaced people -sought refuge earlier this summer. And so we were able to not only meet with eight organizations, the United Nations, Pakistani government officials, but also talk to families who bore the brunt of these military offensives.

HANSEN: What did some of the families specifically tell you when you spoke to them?

Mr. DUPLAT: Well, I mean, these are families that had to flee their homes very quickly - they left everything behind. And now they find themselves in tents in extremely warm weather, very uncomfortable. And sometimes they try to go back to their home districts only to find their houses destroyed or their crops destroyed, so they have nothing to go back to. So, they need not only the basic assistance of food and shelter and blankets, but they also need assistance to rebuild their lives and that's going to be a long haul effort.

HANSEN: Tell us some of the problems that you cite in the report about the U.S. government's approach to providing humanitarian aid in Pakistan.

Mr. DUPLAT: This is a conflict that pits the government of Pakistan against Taliban antigovernment elements. And so having the Pakistani government in charge of delivering aid - and the aid effort is coordinated by an active military general - is quite clearly a conflict of interest.

HANSEN: Is it your impression that the Pakistani government is using relief aid as a political tool? Can you give us some hard examples of that?

Mr. DUPLAT: Absolutely. I mean, aid is tied to registration in the sense that if you're not registered, then you cannot receive assistance from the Pakistani government. Now, you know, you have some people who couldn't register because they arrived too late or because they didn't have their national identity card. But most importantly, registration is tied to your place of origin.

So the Pakistani military designates certain areas, certain administrative divisions, as being in conflict. If you're from that area, you're allowed to register, but if you're not, you can't. So quite clearly, aid is tied to a geographic area rather than needs. And we spoke to some families whose houses were bombed and they couldn't receive any assistance because the Pakistani government said, well, we didn't give you authorization to flee. That quite clearly is unacceptable.

HANSEN: But in being able to provide humanitarian aid to Pakistan, are there any suggestions about how the United States could strike a balance between putting in some kind of controls that would prevent these government abuses without infringing on Pakistan's sovereignty?

Mr. DUPLAT: Well, as you know, President Obama just signed into law an authorizing bill providing $7.5 billion in non-military aid to Pakistan over the next five years. That is tremendous leverage. There are some conditions attached to that aid, but there should also be a clear indication on the part of the U.S. government that this is not a blank check. That as much as we support this military offensive, we will not tolerate discrimination and aid, politicization of the relief effort and human rights abuses on the part of the Pakistani military.

HANSEN: Do you think they'll be successful?

Mr. DUPLAT: Well, I mean, quite clearly U.S.-Pakistani relations over the past eight years in particular have been this balancing act of giving money and expecting something in return. And, you know, obviously, not everything that was expected was given on the part of the Pakistani.

But the U.S. must see it not just as a moral imperative, but a strategic one. You're going after the Taliban, but you're certainly trying to win the hearts and minds of the Pakistani people, especially in places like Fatah. And if aid is not forthcoming to these people, if they see the government as being an oppressive government and if they see the U.S. collaborating and funding this effort, quite clearly you're losing that battle.

HANSEN: Patrick Duplat is a field researcher for the humanitarian advocacy group Refugees International, and he joined me in the studios here in Washington. Thank you for coming in.

Mr. DUPLAT: Thank you.

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