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In north-west Pakistan, some families displaced by conflict begin the journey home

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0686/Ramoneda
A woman and her children sit on the ground, near rows of tents, at Jalozai camp for displaced people, located in Nowshera district in North-West Frontier Province, Pakistan.

By Chris Niles

NEW YORK, 17 July 2009 – As UNICEF turns its attention to ensuring that children affected by the conflict in Pakistan’s North-West Frontier Province get back to school on time, the first of some 2 million displaced people have started to return home.

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“It’s because of the extremely hot temperatures that we are going. It’s too hot here. All my children have fallen sick,” said Ali Zafar, who has been living in the Jalozai camp in Nowshera district. Daytime temperatures in the camps reach the mid-40s Celsius, and families have only tents for shelter.

UNICEF is working with its UN partners and Pakistan’s Government to ensure that the return is safe and voluntary. 

Security a precondition for return

“It was important for us to state very clearly to the government officials that they need to give us a clear sign that the security is ensured so that we can provide support to accompanied returnees,” said UNICEF Director of Emergency Programmes, Louis-Georges Arsenault.

© UNICEF/NYHQ2009-0687/Ramoneda
A small boy helps to set up his family’s tent in Jalozai camp, North-West Frontier Province. His family was displaced by the conflict in Pakistan’s Swat Valley.

“That being said, it is clear that the people don’t intend to stay in camps,” he added. “They want to be able to go back as soon as possible, so we are making sure there are preconditions for that return, and the preconditions are safety and security.”

Although the number of people returning is only a fraction of the millions displaced, UNICEF hopes that more can soon go back safely. In the meantime, the organization will continue to provide support for children and women who return home, as well as those remaining in camps.

However, about 90 per cent of the displaced are not in the camps but, instead, staying with host communities. This situation increases the challenges facing families in the region – including both displaced and host families.

‘Fifty people in one room’

“You have houses where you have 50 people in one room, and they’ve been living like this for several months now, in extreme heat,” said Mr. Arsenault. “This cannot last forever. It’s increasing the pressure tremendously. We are hoping that the return can take place progressively, and this is what we are planning.” 

One of UNICEF’s most pressing priorities is to ensure that about 700,000 school-aged children – out of the estimated 1 million children displaced by the conflict – are able to return to classes when the school year begins in September.

But many buildings in the Swat Valley area, where the worst fighting took place, have been destroyed, and some 4,000 schools have been turned into shelters for the displaced.

Continual threat of violence

“The current conflict is also, in a way, a conflict on certain values, on access of all children, including girls, to education,” said UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan Luc Chauvin. “The Pakistan Taliban have prevented girls from going to school – over 400 schools were blown up by the Taliban militants in Swat – so it’s a big battle for the future of Pakistani children,”
Adding to the humanitarian challenges is the continual threat of violence. An officer of the UN refugee agency was shot and killed in Peshawar this week; his death follows those of several others, including UNICEF Islamabad Chief of Education Perseveranda So, who was killed in a Peshawar hotel bombing in June.

“It’s a pretty grim toll, so we’re taking all the precautions we can,” said Mr. Chauvin.




16 July 2009:
UNICEF correspondent Chris Niles reports on the displaced people who are beginning to return to the Swat region of north-west Pakistan.
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17 July 2009:
UNICEF Deputy Representative in Pakistan Luc Chauvin discusses the humanitarian challenges in conflict-affected areas of Pakistan.
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