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Abu Dhabi, UAEWednesday 24 October 2018

Pakistan orders 18 international aid groups to close 

Interior ministry order offers no explanation for government's decision

Abdul Khaliq of ActionAid, one of 18 international NGOs refused permission to operate in Pakistan. Reuters
Abdul Khaliq of ActionAid, one of 18 international NGOs refused permission to operate in Pakistan. Reuters

Pakistan has ordered 18 international aid organisations to close, threatening the assistance they provide to some of the country's most vulnerable, international aid workers said Friday.

The majority of the shuttered aid groups are US-based, while the remainder are from Britain and the European Union, according to a government list. They include the US-based groups World Vision, Catholic Relief Services and International Relief and Development, ActionAid UK, and the Danish Refugee Council.

There was no official explanation from the new government and there was no response to queries about the closures from the interior ministry, which issued the order. The information ministry and foreign ministry also did not respond to the AP requests for comments.

The organisations have been given 60 days to wrap up their operations, said Imran Yusuf Shami, country director for Plan International, whose organisation was told its registration had been denied. Headquartered in Britain, Plan International is a global organisation that focuses on education and child rights.

Mr Shami said the closures would hurt hundreds of thousands of Pakistan's neediest people.

"We have been asking the government why they want us to close but neither us nor anyone else has been given a reason," he said.

Muhammad Amir Rana, director of the Islamabad-based Pakistan Institute of Peace Studies, said the crackdown was part of a government-orchestrated effort to stifle critical voices.

Despite these organisations providing a myriad of services including education, health care, child protection, sanitation and water management, Mr Rana said Pakistan, including its powerful intelligence agency, views many international aid groups as champions of "liberal, secular voices."

He said government opposition to international aid groups had its roots in the 2011 US Navy Seal operation that killed Osama bin Laden in Pakistan.

At the time a Pakistani doctor, Shakil Afridi, used a vaccination scam in an attempt to identify the Al Qaeda leader's home, aiding US Navy Seals who tracked and killed him, later dumping his body in the Arabian Sea, according to reports at the time.

The doctor, who used a fake hepatitis vaccination program to obtain DNA samples from bin Laden's family as a means of pinpointing his location, has been in jail in Pakistan since 2011. He reportedly said he was working for an NGO to gain access to the bin Laden compound.

Since then the Pakistan government, as well as its powerful intelligence agency and military, has looked suspiciously at a host of NGOs, accusing some of using their status as charitable organisations to spy on Pakistan. Citing "intelligence reports" the interior ministry in 2015 instituted stricter more detailed online registration applications for NGOs.

Since then, scores of NGOs in Pakistan have been negotiating with the government. Dozens have already been barred, several have left and others are still petitioning the government to accept their request for registration.

Mr Shami said Plan International employed dozens of people, all Pakistanis, and helped tens of thousands of the country's poorest, often partnering with the government on water and sanitation projects and disaster management.

It was not immediately clear how many of the 18 NGOs targeted in the latest crackdown will appeal further or if there is even another appeal available to them.