Uprooted families begin returning to northwest Pakistan report UN agency
14 July 2009Around 800 people displaced by the conflict in north-west Pakistan have headed back home yesterday under a government-run programme, while another 2,500 are slated to return today, the United Nations refugee agency reported. Returnees to the district of Swat told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) that they felt safe going back to their villages after contacting neighbours who had already safely returned on their own, the agency’s spokesperson, Ron Redmond, told reporters in Geneva.“Other internally displaced people (IDPs) reported they were not yet ready to return, citing security concerns in various areas in Swat,” he stated. “Some IDPs have been displaced several times in the course of the past several months and want to avoid being uprooted yet again.” More than 2 million Pakistanis have fled the conflict between Government forces and militants in the North West Frontier Province (NWFP), and the vast majority are either sheltering in schools and other public buildings, with host families or in rental accommodations.Those that headed home yesterday were living in the Jalozai camp, which is managed by UNHCR together with its partners and provincial authorities. Unbearable heat in the camp was cited as one of the main reasons they decided to go back to their villages. Some of the most vulnerable IDPs, including pregnant women, said they would rather remain in camps for now since they have access to health services – something that is not always available in their villages, noted Mr. Redmond.The World Health Organization (WHO), which just completed a high-level mission to Pakistan on Friday, said one of its major concerns is ensuring that returnees have access to functional health systems. The agency’s spokesperson, Paul Garwood, also cited a major gap in female health workers available to treat patients, particularly female returnees who prefer to be treated by women. The scale of the displacement crisis continues to “exhaust the current health system’s ability to meet all needs,” he told reporters. The situation is being further complicated by the coming monsoon season, which will result in higher risks to displaced women and children under five, especially with regard to respiratory infections, malaria, and other water-borne diseases. The Government’s return plan – known as Naway Sahar, or ‘Dawn of a New Beginning’– will focus first on repatriating displaced people currently staying in camps, and then move on to those staying with host families, renting rooms or staying in schools. Government authorities and UN agencies, including UNHCR, signed a statement over the weekend pledging that the return process would follow the principles of voluntariness, safety and dignity. UNHCR will help to monitor the willingness of people to return as well to implement the registration process. It will also provide assistance in cash to the Government for the transportation of vulnerable people, and distribute relief items to families which have not yet received them, especially for IDPs staying in host families and school buildings.