WASHINGTON - Newly released research from experts and refugee advocates paints a clearer and perhaps surprising picture of the plight of Pakistan's rapidly growing population of internally displaced persons (IDPs).
The information comes as the U.S. is investing more money in Pakistan, and many hope that the new information will influence how that aid is used.
The current IDP crisis was spurred by last year's takeover by the Taliban of the Swat Valley in the North-West Frontier Province, as many of its residents fled its strict Islamist rule.
The situation was compounded in early May, when, under strong U.S. pressure, the Pakistani army launched a major campaign to retake the valley. Hundreds of thousands of people poured from the area in anticipation of the violence.
Estimates of the size of Pakistan's IDP population have ranged greatly. The U.N. High Commissioner on Refugees' 2008 Global Trends report, released last week, estimates 1.8 million IDPs within Pakistan, making it the largest IDP population in the world.
Speaking in May, Secretary of State Hillary Clinton put the number at "about two million", and some have said that Pakistan contains as many as 2.5 million IDPs.
Dr. Nasim Ashraf, who served as Pakistan's Minister of State for Human Development from 2002-2008, has said that 1.7 million is the firmest estimate. This comprises 268 thousand families, 117 thousand of whom are from the Swat Valley region.
According to the Global Trends report, Pakistan has among the fewest resources in terms of its per capita GDP to support its refugee and IDP population of any country in the world.
On Jun. 25, Ashraf spoke at the Middle East Institute, where he is executive director of the Centre for Pakistan Studies. He revealed the results of his survey of Pakistani IDPs. The results provide a more complete picture of the needs and difficulties of Pakistan's refugees, and also often contradict the picture of refugees painted by the media.
Ashraf personally visited Pakistan's IDP camps this month, surveying over 500 families affected by the refugee crisis. Despite the attention paid to refugee camps by development agencies and the media, Ashraf said, only 10 to 12 percent of Pakistan's refugees live in camps.
The majority live with host families in the areas surrounding the Swat region. In light of this fact, around 20 percent of the families he surveyed were host families.
One eye-opening facet of Ashraf's survey is the section dealing with Pakistanis' attitudes towards the U.S.
The U.S. has by far been the biggest aid contributor to Pakistan. In May, Clinton announced the further provision of 110 million dollars to Pakistan, which she said would be used primarily for food and emergency aid.
Earlier this month, Congress also passed President Barack Obama's supplemental war spending bill, which will provide an additional 225 million dollars in aid for displaced people. Furthermore, on Jun. 24, the Senate approved tripling economic assistance to Pakistan to about 1.5 billion dollars a year over the next five years.
Despite this sizable assistance from the U.S., Pakistanis say they have yet to see the effects of this funding. When asked if they had received any help from the U.S., 72 percent of those surveyed by Ashraf said no. Ashraf said that this sentiment is widespread.
"The common man [in Pakistan] doesn't know that, you know, Secretary Clinton here has announced 200 million [dollars of aid] because they don't think that it ever gets there to them," he said.
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This is why many are saying that the U.S. should prioritise emergency assistance and projects with immediate results over long-term projects.
The Refugees International report gave recommendations for U.S. funding policy towards Pakistan. The report noted that, prior to the legislation's passage, "some fear[ed] a large part of the funding will go to reconstruction and rehabilitation."
Ashraf's results show that Pakistanis want their immediate needs to be met first. When asked their biggest needs, the IDPs' top three responses were food, money, and household articles.
Yet last week's Senate funding package does not emphasise emergency assistance. Rather, it stipulates that funding be used for projects that promote three areas: "just and democratic governance", which includes efforts to improve police forces and the judicial system; "economic freedom", meaning promoting economic sustainability and growth; and "investments in people", which includes projects on education and public health.
"We're not saying all the money needs to go to emergency funding," says Patrick Duplat, one of the authors of the Refugees International report. Rather, he says, he would hope that lawmakers can have a holistic picture of the problem, understanding that there needs to be a balance between emergency and long-term planning.
He adds, "I think that lawmakers must get the sense that this is not a short-term crisis."
Ashraf's survey would suggest that distrust of the U.S. is common amongst refugees. When asked if they think the U.S. is "a friend of Pakistan", 69.4 percent said no. Additionally, when asked if they would permit the U.S. army to enter Pakistan in pursuit of Talibani leaders, an overwhelming 99 percent of those surveyed said no.
However, the IDPs' support of the armed opposition to the Taliban has grown substantially over the last two months, says Ashraf. His results show that over 50 percent of those surveyed support the armed opposition; while not overwhelming support, Ashraf said that this number would have been closer to 20 percent just two months ago.
Furthermore, the IDPs and host families consider the Taliban a bigger threat to Pakistan than either the U.S. or India. However, the Pakistanis also have a great mistrust of their own government, suggesting that they feel truly abandoned. "There is still mistrust about anything having anything to do with government or officials or the army," he said.
This distrust is heightened by fears that the Pakistani government will force its IDPs to return home by Jul. 1, as has been proposed. Ashraf said that the government thinks that, by mid-August, when Ramadan will begin, most of the IDPs will be resettled.
The Refugees International report gives an overview of the uncertainty of the problem, noting that, "The government of Pakistan has been sending mixed signals on whether or not displaced Pakistanis would be forced to return home, one day talking about voluntary returns then setting fixed return dates while the conflict is ongoing."
According to Duplat, the dilemma of IDP return hinges upon security and who determines the threat posed to the IDPs. "Everybody wants to return as soon as possible. The question is, can they? And who will decide when they can?"
That security remains tenuous. The effectiveness of the Pakistani army's offensive has been the subject of considerable debate here. Many analysts believe that the Taliban successfully retreated in advance of the campaign, and are poised to return if and when the army leaves.
In addition, as the New York Times reported on Sunday, some Taliban fighters have infiltrated IDP camps, where they are now living among those displaced from their homes in Swat.
U.S. government officials are concerned that if the government and international aid agencies fail to provide them with the supplies they need when they return, the sequence of events of the past several months could further radicalise the population, offering the Taliban a new recruitment base.