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Of forced displacement

December 14, 2011

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A BRIEF exposure to an orientation course on forced migration in Kolkata is enough to make one realise that in Pakistan the state functionaries and the NGOs both have a long way to go before they can adequately address matters related to forced migration, internal displacement and natural or man-made disasters.

This course was the ninth annual event, organised by an internationally acclaimed Kolkata-based group of academics, scholars and researchers, and it is one of the only two UN-recognised initiatives (in the world) on the subject. Over the years, scores of academics, researchers and activists from South Asia and beyond have acquired, through the annual winter course, a proper understanding of the plight of refugees, internally displaced persons and disaster victims, especially the more vulnerable among them, and the means of mitigating their suffering.

The 15-day course, which is preceded by a three-and-a-half-month distance education programme, has four compulsory modules: nationalism, ethnicity, racism and xenophobia; the gendered nature of forced migration, victim-hood and gender justice; international, regional and national regimes of protection; and internal displacement — causes, linkages and responses. In addition there are two optional modules: resource politics, environmental degradation and forced migration, and the ethics of care and justice.

Besides writing assignments, course activities include workshops, group discussions, field visits, creative sessions, interaction with resource persons experienced in related areas and with activists working with refugees living in camps. The course also includes film and documentary sessions. This year’s participants came from Bangladesh, India, Nepal and Sri Lanka. They included a Canadian researcher who has been working at a Karen refugee camp in Thailand and a Lebanese researcher who has surveyed a camp for Burmese refugees. All the participants were active in the field. One of them was a candidate for a PhD in displacement.

There was no Pakistani participant this year (there has been occasional Pakistani participation in the past) although two candidates had been selected. One could not join because he had secured a post in the subordinate judiciary and the other failed to obtain a visa to travel to Kolkata.

Not only the orientation course but the entire body of research done by the Calcutta Research Group and the many outstanding books published by it have great relevance to all those in Pakistan who are concerned at the tribulations of refugees, internally displaced persons and disaster victims. And this for two main reasons.

First, Pakistan probably has had to play host to more refugees than any other country in the world — millions of Partition refugees during 1947-55 and millions of Afghan refugees from 1979 to date. It has witnessed large-scale displacement caused by development works, such as the building of the federal capital and the Mangla and Tarbela dams. The displacement of large numbers of people has also been caused in conflict zones — Balochistan, Khyber-Pakhtunkhwa and Fata.

Further, there have been three major natural calamities in seven years — the earthquake of 2005, the floods of 2010 and the rain havoc of 2011 — that forced millions of people to abandon their homes and affected many more millions. The crises of the size faced by Pakistan demanded high-quality knowledge and skills to alleviate the misery of the affected multitude.

Secondly, the Pakistan government has at best displayed a muddled approach to the problems of refugees, IDPs and the disaster affected. It does not recognise the UN Convention on Refugees and has betrayed little knowledge of the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement.

No law has ever been made to define the rights of refugees and IDPs or a system installed to regulate the functioning of camps and organise relief and rehabilitation operations. It has certainly established a National Disaster Management Authority and its provincial versions but they have apparently followed a narrow definition of their responsibilities.

A number of non-government organisations have, however, tried to address the problems of the most vulnerable of the affected — women-headed families, orphans, women with small children, members of minority communities and people with disabilities. Much good has been done by these NGOs but their work has suffered from lack of consistency on the part of donors, and their own lack of experience, skills and financial/administrative discipline of the level required.

There is reason to believe that both the state functionaries and non-government institutions will gain a lot from scientific analyses of the issues in debate, from acquisition of advanced skills and a radical reorientation of policies and attitudes towards displaced people.

The main problem in this country is that displacement and disasters are considered rare accidents which do not require planning, research or a consistent work plan. The authorities have to realise that due to a number of factors, some natural and some man-made, the displacement of people is going to be a regular feature of life. Old manuals on disaster management are no longer sufficient. It is not enough to cart the displaced people to safety without guaranteeing their rights in transit and in camps.

A large number of the displaced people, such as women and children, have special concerns and social needs. The children need education and health facilities more than anything else and all communities uprooted from their traditional habitat need emotional and psychological recovery and rehabilitation.

This task cannot be left to a single agency, such as the Disaster Management Authority. Quite a few branches of the administration must also be sensitised to it. The universities and institutions responsible for training administrators have to be persuaded to provide education and the training necessary for the relief and rehabilitation of all categories of displaced persons. Something can be learnt from the Indian efforts in this regard.

When the Indian coastal areas and islands in the Bay of Bengal were devastated by a tsunami a few years ago, New Delhi realised that the disaster management drill prescribed by the colonial rulers, largely a rescue operation, was grossly inadequate to meet the challenge. They quickly established a network of disaster management agencies and persuaded several universities to offer courses in refugee studies, protection of displaced people and management of relief for disaster victims.

The Pakistan government must start making up for lost time by ratifying the refugee convention and making appropriate laws for the protection of refugees, IDPs and disaster victims.

The authorities need to be made familiar with the UN Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement and the urgency of applying them. Courses on the physical, social and psycho-emotional needs of the displaced people should be introduced at educational and training institutions. Above all, civil society should sustain an informed discourse on the rights of the displaced.

Pakistan has devoted a great deal of its resources to the care of refugees and displaced people without ensuring adequate returns in terms of the affected communities’ satisfaction. It is now necessary to ensure that all such work is inspired by the best international practices for humanitarian assistance.