May 19, 2009 in Nation/World

Pakistan refugee numbers soar

U.N. agency says 1.5 million have fled homes this month
Bradley S. Klapper Associated Press
 
Associated Press photo

New refugees who have fled from fighting in Swat Valley arrive at the Jalozai camp in Peshawar, Pakistan, on Monday.
(Full-size photo)

GENEVA – The U.N.’s refugee agency said Monday that nearly 1.5 million people have fled their homes in Pakistan this month, saying that fighting between government forces and Taliban militants is uprooting more people faster than probably any conflict since the Rwandan genocide of the 1990s.

“It has been a long time since there has been a displacement this big,” said U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees spokesman Ron Redmond, trying to recollect the last time so many people were uprooted in such a short period.

Redmond spoke as the U.N.’s refugee chief Antonio Guterres returned from a three-day mission to Pakistan, and as Taliban forces vowed to resist military advances in the northwestern Swat Valley until their “last breath.”

He said the newly uprooted added to more than 550,000 people who were already registered as displaced in northwest Pakistan, meaning there are more than 2 million people separated from their homes in the country.

“Humanitarian workers are struggling to keep up with the size and speed of the displacement,” Redmond told journalists in Geneva, where UNHCR has its headquarters. He said a lack of help for the displaced and the many thousands of families hosting them could cause more “political destabilization” for the country.

The U.N. believes around 15 to 20 percent of the displaced are in camps at the moment – around 250,000 in some 24 camps, U.N. humanitarian chief John Holmes said, “which means most people are either with host families, communities, in rented accommodation or somewhere else.”

“The situation is volatile and changing rapidly,” Holmes told reporters at U.N. headquarters in New York.

The International Organization for Migration was sending trucks full of quilts, sleeping mats and other goods to help the influx of people in camps near the city of Peshawar, said spokesman Jean-Philippe Chauzy.

Still, they were only reaching a fraction of the displaced.

U.N. humanitarian spokeswoman Elisabeth Byrs said the global body was preparing to launch an international appeal for aid programs in the country by the end of the week.

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