Fleeing home is a negative experience in itself, but for Pakistan’s one million internally displaced persons (IDPs), most of them subsistence farmers, the sense of dislocation is made worse when they have to start paying for food and accommodation.
The result is often what humanitarians call “negative coping strategies” - a set of responses to difficulties that may provide a temporary means of survival, but can seriously undermine IDPs’ long-term security.
“People keep backups; some have savings, others have valuables and livestock. Once they’re gone, and they’re barely making enough to eat, it is extremely difficult for them to rebuild those backups,” said Faiz Mohammed, chief coordinator for IDPs in the Khyber Pakhtunkhwa (KP) provincial government.
The situation is further complicated by the fact that most displaced families do not live in camps; around 90 percent of IDPs live with relatives or in rented houses.
“Where we need intervention the most is off-camp, and unfortunately that is a very complicated and huge task,” Mohammed said. “Some cash grants have been provided by partners, but that is a drop in the ocean.”
“For the families that arrive at camps, we are able to intervene to reduce the impact of negative coping strategies. Through registration, food and non-food aid is delivered, and we have a policy to employ only IDPs for any work required on camp,” he added. “This helps to some extent, but only as far as the day-to-day requirements are concerned.”
The latest wave of displacement has seen over 130,000 people leave their homes in Pakistan’s northwestern Federally Administered Tribal Areas (FATA) since March because of fighting between government soldiers and militants allied to the Taliban in the Khyber and Kurram agencies.
These people have been leaving the homes they own and the farms that feed them to seek refuge in areas around the city of Peshawar, where employment and livelihood opportunities are limited, and yet many need to pay rent and buy food at market prices.
Surviving - negatively
The immediate need in order to cope is cash; and taking on debt and selling assets is often the only way for them to survive.
Omar Khan wakes up an hour before dawn every day to push his wheelbarrow into the main fruit and vegetable market of Islamabad, and haul loads from one truck to another until noon.
He then heads to a workshop near the vegetable market, where he works as a cleaner. Ending his day at 8pm, Khan makes, on average, 500 Pakistani rupees (US$4.9) a day.
What is left of that money after buying food for his family goes to the owner of a local grocery store, where Khan has notched up a 15,000 rupee ($147) debt that has slowly risen since the family fled fighting in the Khyber tribal region in April last year. They left behind most of their belongings, and had to sell whatever items of value they could bring with them to buy food and pay rent.
Data from the Internally Displaced Person Vulnerability Assessment and Profiling (IVAP) survey show that a large portion of the IDPs from the five-year conflict in FATA have resorted to negative coping strategies to survive: 30 percent of families purchased food on credit, and 21.7 percent borrowed food, or asked friends and relatives for help.
Some families in the IVAP survey resorted to more drastic action like reducing meal size and quantity (7.1 percent), or skipping meals altogether (3.4 percent). These strategies most seriously threaten children, whose vulnerability is increased because of malnutrition.
Another study funded by the Norwegian government and released in November 2012, found that 57.6 percent of households reduced the quality of their meals, and 52.5 percent reduced the quantity.
A displaced school teacher’s experience
Yar Mohammed, a 29-year-old school teacher who fled fighting in Tirah Valley in FATA’s Khyber Agency, rented a small mud house in Peshawar when he arrived in January. He was paying 4,000 rupees ($39) a month, a huge sum for him as he did not have a job. The few savings he had were spent on transportation and household items.
“It was really tough when we first arrived. I agreed to rent the house because we needed a roof. I couldn’t leave my children under the open sky,” Mohammed said. “I managed to pay the rent for a few months from the money I made as a daily wage labourer in the market. Sometimes there was nothing left to buy food. We are wearing the same clothes that we had on the day we left our village.”
Mohammed’s family was evicted in April when the landlord decided to increase the rent to 5,000 rupees, an impossible amount for Mohammed. He pleaded with the landlord to at least delay the increase by a few months, but to no avail. Another IDP family from Tirah had arrived in a fresh displacement because of an escalation in fighting between the Pakistan army and militant groups. The new family was willing to meet the landlord’s demand.
“We are not in our homeland, not among friends. People don’t care if we are homeless or we are suffering. They just want money,” Mohammed said. He now lives in a small mud house in a settlement 10km from Peshawar.
He pays 3,000 ($29.4) for this house, but says the village is too far away from Peshawar, making it difficult for him to go there every day to look for work. “Where am I going to find the money for the bus every day?” he asked.
“The fighting does not look like it is going to end soon, so we have to stay here. I have nothing to sell, and I barely make enough for a meal a day,” said Mohammed, who earns 250 rupees ($2.45) a day at a nearby brick factory. “If things don’t get better soon, I will have no choice but to beg on the streets.”
Adverse effect on long-term recovery?
The IVAP project started a re-census of IDP families in May, surveying 4,518 families from Tirah in the initial phase. Preliminary re-census data seen by IRIN show negative coping strategies, similar to the ones highlighted in the earlier surveys, including purchasing food on credit, reducing meal sizes and selling assets like jewellery.
Aid organizations and the government fear this could make it more difficult for displaced families to recover in the long run.
The government announced last month that it has planned the voluntary return of 274,962 IDPs to different tribal agencies. As of 18 July, according to the KP government, around 66,000 IDPs have returned to their homes in Kurram, South Waziristan and Bajaur.
But for such returnees, the effects of the negative coping strategies they have resorted to may well follow them home at a time when their former homes and livelihoods could have been destroyed.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions
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