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Pakistan Shutters International NGOs, Cutting Off Basic Services For 11 Million People
Pakistani women line up to receive charity food in Islamabad last October. (Aamir Qureshi/AFP/Getty Images)

Pakistan Shutters International NGOs, Cutting Off Basic Services For 11 Million People

Analysts say the Islamabad is worried about entities involved in sensitive matters related to security and religion

[Islamabad]—Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior has ordered 18 humanitarian aid groups to halt their operations and leave the country within 60 days. The majority of these international non-governmental organizations (INGOs) are U.S.-based, while the rest are from the United Kingdom and other EU countries.

INGOs had been providing health care, education, food, sanitation, and other basic services to vulnerable people, with a focus on education for girls, women’s rights, helping street children and people with disabilities. Islamabad’s move would affect more than 11 million people living below the poverty line.

Commenting on the decision, U.S. State Department Spokesperson Heather Nauert said these organizations employed thousands of Pakistanis nationwide and shared the government’s vision for a vibrant, healthy, democratic and prosperous country.

“Many needy people will suffer from this rash action, and that’s the real tragedy of this development,” Michael Kugelman, Deputy Director and Senior Associate for South Asia at the Woodrow Wilson Center in Washington, conveyed to The Media Line.

Though the Pakistani government’s stated reason is that INGOs were falling behind on filing documents for regulatory transparency, the real motivation was mistrust and suspicion regarding overseas entities, Kugelman explained.

Adriano Campolina, the secretary general of an expelled organization told The Media Line that “the decision to shut down these bodies is a worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society, academics and journalists. If the trend continues, the country’s hard-won democracy will itself be the ultimate victim.”

According to a list of banned organizations received by The Media Line, nine INGOs are linked to the U.S., three to the UK and two to the Netherlands. Others have connections to Italy, Switzerland, Denmark and Ireland.

Pakistan’s Interior Ministry confirmed it had rejected the appeals of 18 banned entities, but declined to provide further details.

Speaking anonymously due to the sensitivity of the matter, a senior Interior Ministry official told The Media Line that the majority of the barred organizations were “working against Pakistan’s national interests, and were involved in matters related to security and religion.”

The official stressed that the affected INGOs were given the option of applying for re-registration, but were informed that renewal would be subject to a security clearance by the national intelligence agencies.

Ia Rajput, a security expert, told The Media Line that intelligence officials closely monitoring the activities of these organizations found that they were encouraging sectarianism, supporting anti-state elements, and were involved in illegal weapons smuggling and other serious offenses.

But Pakistani security agencies have always harbored mistrust toward INGOs, which was further intensified in 2011 when the CIA allegedly employed a doctor, Shakeel Afridi, to help track al-Qa’ida head Osama bin Laden. Afridi was hired by the U.S.-funded entity Save the Children, Rajput explained.

Nisar Ali Khan, spokesperson of the Interior Ministry at that time, told The Media Line that before 2015 there was no particular standard operating procedure for regulating INGOs, but when it was proven that Save the Children was involved in bin Laden’s killing, the monitoring of these bodies in Pakistan was shifted from the Ministry of Economic Affairs to the Interior Ministry.

“In June 2015, Pakistani authorities finally decided to shutter Save The Children, declaring that it was involved in anti-state activities,” Ali Khan said.

In response to a request for comment by The Media Line, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said that Pakistan recognizes and appreciates the assistance from the donor community and INGOs.

“Islamabad’s policy framework is fully aligned with nationally determined development priorities and needs. In our view, the grounds for rejection are clearly laid out in government documents, which are available on the Interior Ministry’s online website,” the MOFA stated.

Senator Mustafa Nawaz Khokhar, Chairman of the Senate Human Rights Committee, told The Media Line that he has directed the Interior Ministry to include official from the Ministry of Human Rights in the committee dealing with INGO registration.

“The committee has observed that due process was not applied to the rejection of INGO registration cases. Therefore, the expelled entities were never informed about the reasons behind the decision. This is a violation of the basic principles of justice,” the senator contended.

Mikkel Trolle, Regional Director for the Danish Refugee Council, told The Media Line that his organization’s Pakistan chapter received a letter from the Ministry of Interior stating that its request for registration was rejected and that it was instructed to wind down operations within 60 days.

“No specific reason for the expulsion was given to DRC. Nevertheless, the organization had fully complied with the government’s decision and left the country,” Trolle said.

EU countries, and five other nations, have started applying diplomatic pressure over the crackdown.

In a joint statement, EU-member states, Australia, Canada, Norway and Switzerland stressed that, “we fully respect the government’s right to maintain an INGO registration policy, but we share a deep concern over the way it has been implemented. We have been engaging with the Pakistani leadership to revisit the situation of those organizations that were rejected.”

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