Prime Minister Yousaf Raza Gilani says the Swat operation is a fight for the “survival of Pakistan”. True. But we could be defeated in this fight by the developing crisis of the refugee camps in Mardan and elsewhere in the NWFP unless we do some emergency reorganisation. When the provincial government asked the people of the Malakand region to leave their homes to give the Pakistan Army a chance to take on the Taliban without too much collateral damage, the local population readily agreed. But their reception at the camps is turning out to be a trauma they did not anticipate.

The camps have been hurriedly put together in Mardan, Swabi and other places in the NWFP, and first reports are not very heartening. Around 200,000 have moved out of the target areas; an additional 300,000 are on the move and are expected to reach the camps by the beginning of the week. They will have joined the earlier 500,000 that fled the conflict zone and have been absorbed in various parts of the province, including the old deserted refugee camps used by the Afghan refugees in the past. That makes a total of one million refugees. The NWFP government projects a figure of 1.5 million as the war in Swat goes into attrition.

The National Disaster Management Authority (NDMA) disagrees with the numbers on the basis of registration because registration is the only way you can officially compute the size of displacement. It is true that many Swatis and people from other areas have moved in with their relatives outside the region but the coming flood of refugees is mostly going to be looked after by the state of Pakistan. The prime minister has already given Rs 1 billion to the NWFP government but it is organisation and expert handling that is missing. The first images appearing on the TV channels tell us that both are in short supply.

If this is the case, we may be defeated by the Taliban because of the refugee camps. We had a much better record of handling the displaced persons after the 2005 earthquake in Azad Kashmir and parts of the NWFP. Have we forgotten the lessons?

The 2005 earthquake was a sudden natural calamity and we could not have organised rescue and settlement beforehand. Adverse publicity of government performance went on for weeks before organisation caught up with the homeless. Beyond 2005, we had decades of experience of handling the Afghan refugees most of whom were lodged in the NWFP. Where has that expertise gone?

The plight of the first arrivals in the camps in Swabi and Mardan is quite pathetic. Coming from a cold area they are specially affected by the hot weather. The camps are pitched in open fields with only tent canvas to fend against the summer sun. Despite claims by officers, there is no clean drinking water, which is what the refugees need in the scorching heat to which they are not used. Children are specially affected by the new conditions but medical facilities are absent at the camps. Registration itself is problematic. Because each family has to be issued a special permit before facilities can be made available, hundreds are lining up in front of a single man registering them and issuing permits. This in itself is suffering.

All this could have been avoided. The plan to take military action should have included detailed plans of looking after the displaced population. And that could have been prepared in light of the experiences of the Afghan refuge camps and the 2005 earthquake. More significantly, the NWFP government could have studied the flaws in the policy of looking after the displaced people of Bajaur after the recent operations there. There were positive and negative lessons to be learned there. Unfortunately, Pakistan has once again been found standing dazed with its pants down before a population of refugees.

The so-called “national consensus” against the Taliban is not total, but it is quite broad and inclusive. The plight of the refugee camps will not only strengthen the Taliban, it will erode the national consensus too. No major politician has visited the refugee camps as they painfully come into existence.