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Top 10 of 2010 - Issue #10: Natural Disasters in Haiti and Pakistan Highlight Diaspora Response

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Top 10 of 2010 - Issue #10: Natural Disasters in Haiti and Pakistan Highlight Diaspora Response

Girls and men displaced by flood waters wait for food rations in a camp for internally displaced persons in Jalala, Pakistan.

Haiti and Pakistan were an unlikely pair until 2010, when horrific natural disasters made it impossible for the world to ignore their devastation.

The January 12 earthquake in Haiti killed over 220,000 people according to the Haitian government, and the number of displaced people peaked at 2.3 million before dropping to 1.5 million in July, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) reported.

But the migration story in Haiti was less about displacement and more about the Haitian diaspora and the actions of governments where Haitian immigrants live.

As the media reported, thousands of Haitian American doctors and nurses volunteered to help while many traveled to Haiti to contribute their skills where they were direly needed. Beyond sending money and supplies, the diaspora wants to take an active role in rebuilding Haiti. At the Haiti Diaspora meeting in March, which the Organization of American States hosted, the 500 participants issued a series of recommendations for nation-building, recovery, and development.

And in a shift from the past, Haiti is ready to welcome their contribution. Edwin Paraison, Haiti's Minister of Haitians Living Abroad, said the time had come for the diaspora "to be able to exercise fully and completely its role in all of our country's initiatives, as well as its participation in the processes of decision-making."

In terms of relief, the United States, home to about 535,000 Haitian immigrants, moved quickly to grant Temporary Protected Status (TPS) to Haitians who were in the country illegally at the time of the earthquake; TPS allows recipients to work but does not lead to permanent residency. As of July, about 35,000 Haitians had received TPS. U.S. Citizenship and Immigration Services is also expediting paperwork for those seeking to bring Haitian family members to the United States.

However, the United States has not changed its long-standing policy of interdicting Haitians attempting to enter the country by boat and returning them to Haiti.

Canada, home to 63,350 Haitian foreign born in 2006, has taken a similar approach, establishing the Haiti Special Measures Program that sped up family-reunification requests and extended the status of students and temporary workers whose application fees the government waived; the program ended September 1. As of July, Canada had granted 2,500 temporary resident visas or permits to allow Haitians to come to Canada and had prioritized Haitians' asylum claims.

When the United Nations calls a disaster worse than the 2004 Indian Ocean tsunami that killed over 270,000 people, you know the situation is dire. The monsoon rains that flooded about one-fifth of Pakistan's territory last summer affected over 20 million people and killed nearly 2,000, destroyed hundreds of thousands of homes, and damaged millions of acres of crops. Stagnant flood waters remain in some places and could be there for months.

Before the flooding, northwestern Pakistan — a Taliban stronghold known as a haven for Al Qaeda members from neighboring Afghanistan — had about 2 million internally displaced people (IDPs), about 1.4 million of them registered with the Pakistani government, according to the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center. Displacement accelerated in 2009 due to human rights abuses and clashes between tribal leaders and militant Islamic rivals, among other causes, and the flooding has made these IDPs even more vulnerable.

Making a complex situation even more difficult, Pakistan's flooded areas were also home to 1.5 million of Pakistan's 1.7 million Afghan refugees, as UNHCR reported. Many Afghans live in settlements established 30 years ago when the Soviets invaded Afghanistan; the settlements occupy land that has since become more valuable. Acknowledging the pressure of land speculators, Pakistani government officials have said Afghan refugees have the right to return to their dwellings and to rebuild those lost in the floods.

As with the Haitian diaspora, the Pakistani diaspora, from the United States to the United Kingdom to the gulf countries, has raised money for disaster relief, sometimes at the behest of Pakistani diplomatic officials. The fact that the floods coincided with the holy month of Ramadan no doubt encouraged donations.

Unlike Haiti, though, Pakistan has not explicitly welcomed the diaspora into the rebuilding process. But then, the diaspora is only in the early stages of organizing itself in such a way that it can become a strategic partner. Pakistani Americans created the American Pakistan Foundation at the very end of 2009 and appointed its first President and CEO in June 2010. Raising money for flood relief was one of their first priorities.

Question: Does this signal a more important role for the diaspora in Pakistan's recovery and further development?

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