IDPs in Mohmand Agency hit by border closure

PESHAWAR, 23 February 2011 (IRIN) - Thousands of people displaced from their homes by fighting between Pakistani government forces and militants in Mohmand Agency, northwestern Pakistan, face sub-zero temperatures and have been blocked from leaving the agency to seek refuge with relatives.

“We are cold all the time,” Mehrunissa Bibi, 35, a mother of three, told IRIN by phone from the Danish Kol camp. “Night time temperatures here are at freezing point, and though we light small fires the children scream with cold at times.”

The family had planned to move in with relatives in Peshawar, but say they have been unable to do so because the borders of the agency have been closed. As a result, Mehrunissa and her family ended up in a camp.

“This is to keep the militants from fleeing I guess, but it means people like us are also forced to stay at the camps, and this is tough given the conditions,” Mehrunissa’s husband, Safi Khan said. Paramilitary forces, he told IRIN, had refused to let them out of the agency.

Mehrunissa and her family are among thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) in Mohmand, one of seven tribal agencies along the Pakistan-Afghanistan border, by a military operation which began there on 27 January, after stepped-up activities in the region by militants.

“The number of people from Mohmand, who have been registered so far in Nahqi and Danish Kol camps, has reached 5,408 families [over 32,000 individuals],” Duniya Aslam Khan, associate public information officer for the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR), told IRIN. The two are the only camps in the agency.

“We don't have figures for the number of people who might be living with their relatives elsewhere in the agency or maybe in rented accommodation.”

The numbers, Khan added, could change given that UNHCR was working on registration data, and doing a tent-to-tent survey, to obtain more accurate information on the number of people in the two camps.

UNHCR has provided sleeping mats, blankets and quilts to the displaced families, among other supplies, Khan said, while acknowledging that these may not prevent people from feeling cold.

Women face greatest difficulties

According to the Norwegian Refugee Council, the only international NGO present in the area, women in the camps were facing the greatest difficulties.

“The current high concentration of extremely vulnerable families gathering within makeshift camps is creating both an operational challenge for aid agencies, and increasing concern over the physical safety of those seeking refuge,” it said in a 21 February statement.

“NRC is particularly concerned about the situation of women who are difficult to assist directly due to the strict cultural norms in Mohmand. These women are likely to face the greatest protection needs as a result of displacement.”

The NRC also believes sick or injured persons may be trapped in areas of fighting.

“There are women here on their own, but very few female aid workers, and this makes things hard as women from our region do not enter into any exchange with men who are not family members,” Mehrunissa said.

The volatile security situation in the country has hampered NGOs over the past few years, with some forced to temporarily close down offices after attacks on staff.