Returns of earthquake displaced occurring at "an unseemly rate"

The returns of earthquake displaced in Pakistan's North Western Frontier Province (NWFP) to their villages are occurring at "an unseemly rate", according to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

While no physical force was being used, there was "considerable evidence" of undue and psychological pressure being used, said Marion Roche, a spokeswoman for the UN agency. She said she believed her comments summarised the findings of a number of agencies working on protection in the area.

On 23 February, a letter had been issued by NWFP authorities stating that organised quake camps would be closed by 31 March, which was being interpreted literally by camp managers, said Roche. But in the last few days increasing numbers of people had also been leaving from spontaneous camps.

"In practice this has meant that IDPs in camps are being informed that they will travel on a specific date, on occasion with the addition that this will be their only opportunity to avail of free transport," she said, adding that some were only being informed the night before they were moved.

A separate humanitarian source, who declined to be named, commented: "The return is forced. These people do not have anything to go back to. It is clear that you cannot move a population before anything is done in the places of return."

"They were given an arbitrary date by which to go, told they had no choice and shipped back," he claimed.

In some cases people were transported in army trucks before being dropped off with their belongings on the side of the road, where roads became impassable, or sometimes wherever the truck driver chose to stop, added the same source.

"The government told us that the exact date to leave this area is 31 March, after that we will not be supported financially," confirmed Mohammed, who was camped in an army tent village on the outskirts of Balakot.

So far an estimated 120,000 people in NWFP have returned home, leaving about 60,000 people in a series of official and unofficial camps in the area.

"The government has decided to return the affectees back to their places of origin, because these camps were established just for temporary shelter," said Regional Relief Commissioner in Mansehra, Anis Sahibzada. Now that winter was over and rehabilitation was starting in peoples' villages, their presence there was "a must", he said.

The government schedule for moving people which began on 10 March should have ended by 31 March but due to bad weather, had been delayed. "Still the operation is in progress and until completion we will carry on," he said.

All of the displaced, except for landless people and "vulnerables" who would be placed in three specialised camps, had to go home, he said.

Sahibzada maintained that no pressure was being applied: "It is purely voluntary....We provide them with full information and we encourage them to go back."

In neighbouring Pakistani-administered Kashmir, no instances of forced return have been reported. "The Camp Management Office (CMO) realises that the situation here is different," said Morgan Morris, a UNHCR spokeswoman in Muzaffarabad, capital of Pakistani-administered Kashmir.

Levels of destruction were far higher in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, she said, while water sources in villages had disappeared or moved, landslides were ongoing and it remained unclear how safe many areas of return were.

A "slow and steady voluntary return" was occurring in Pakistani-administered Kashmir, she said, adding that the CMO was applying "a pull factor" by trying to ensure that basic services were available in places of return, rather than "a push factor".

Separate Pakistani authorities responsible for both the emergency response to the earthquake and reconstruction and rehabilitation have committed themselves to a voluntary returns process based on "informed choice".