International relief agencies are unable to reach some areas in Pakistan that were devastated by this week’s earthquake, because government authorities have not granted them permission to carry out aid activities.
The magnitude 7.5 quake struck neighbouring Afghanistan on 26 October and at least 382 people are reported to have died in both countries, with around 2,700 injured. Those numbers could rise as emergency teams are still trying to reach remote areas of Afghanistan where the extent of the damage is not yet known.
The disaster came three weeks after Pakistan imposed new restrictions on international NGOs (INGOs), requiring them to apply for a “No Objection Certificate” to expand their operations into different areas of the country than those they already operate in. Organisations that applied for NOCs immediately after the quake are still waiting for approval from the Interior Ministry.
“We are scrutinising every request and will process these as quickly as possible,” an official from the ministry told IRIN on condition of anonymity as he was not authorised to speak to media.
As the ministry assess INGO requests, residents in hard-hit districts like Chitral, in the border province of Khyber Pakhtunkhwa, are sleeping outdoors in near-freezing temperatures, according to Haseeb Khalid, spokesman for the Pakistan chapter of Islamic Relief, a UK-based charity.
“We need far more expert aid, especially in the health area, to prevent people getting sick and a bigger calamity from occurring later,” he told IRIN on the phone from Chitral where the organisation is awaiting permission to start work.
Khalid said Chitral’s ethnic minority Kalash community was particularly hard hit.
“Hundreds of houses have been destroyed and all we can do is try to make the best of the situation and hope more assistance arrives soon,” a member of the community, Luke Rehmat, said by phone from the town of Bumburet in the Kalasha Valleys.
Security issues are also slowing down the response, as the military has a heavy presence in the frontier regions where militant groups operate and must authorise access.
INGOs are dealing with various levels of bureaucracy and the situation is “unclear”, said Shahnawaz Khan, a spokesman for Plan International.
“The PDMA (Provincial Disaster Management Authority) seems very supportive and asked INGOs to submit their NOC documents, but then it is up to the army to give the green signal,” he said.
Ahmed Kamal, chair of the National Disaster Management Authority, said PDMAs had no choice but to abide by the new regulations. “For INGOs, we are following the policy laid down by the government early this month,” he told IRIN.
Crackdown on aid groups
The regulations requiring INGOs to obtain NOCs were introduced on 1 October. They are the latest in a series of sweeping policies that allow the government to strictly control INGO activities. At a press conference in Islamabad to announce the newest regulations, Interior Minister Chaudry Nisir Ali said the government needed to monitor the funding of INGOs, as well as the locations they work in and the work they do.
“No country in the world allows any organisation to indulge in activities against its interests,” he told reporters.
The government began its crackdown on INGOs in 2013 following unsubstantiated yet widespread rumours that Save the Children had been involved in a Central Intelligence Agency programme that tracked down Osama bin Laden by obtaining his DNA through a polio vaccination campaign.
Save the Children said it had never employed the doctor, who was sentenced to 33 years in prison after being accused of working for the CIA. Yet the rumours have persisted. The government temporarily shut down the charity in June, and its programmes have been severely curtailed.
“We have pulled out of KP (Khyber Pakhtunkhwa) and the quake-affected areas are not where we are currently working,” country director Nayyar Iqbal told IRIN. “As such, we are not contemplating any response to earthquake emergency.”
Other aid agencies are still waiting for NOCs to be approved through a byzantine process, but some representatives declined to speak on record about the sensitive topic.
“You need to apply to the government and the PDMA in the concerned province and then to the district management authority in the area of work,” said a doctor working with an INGO. “So the whole process takes a long time, and in disasters we cannot really afford to wait.”
Another aid worker who liaises with the PDMA in Khyber Pakhtunkhwa said PDMA officials are not happy about the situation, but they are reluctant to challenge the powerful Interior Ministry.
“The Interior Ministry has been very strict, and even now it seems oblivious to the fact that it is the people who are suffering as a result,” he said.