ISLAMABAD: Interior Ministry of Pakistan has started writing to a number of International Non-Government Oganizations to close their operations in Pakistan.

The notices, rejecting their applications to get registered under the new policy of the country for INGOs, also tell the selective INGOs to wind-up their activities within 60 days.

The letter, according to reliable sources, has been issued to Plan International, working on child rights, Action-Aid, working on health and awareness, The Open Society Foundation and many other INGos promoting human rights, and running projects related to media, democracy and advocating equality and freedom of expression.

A meeting of Pakistan Humanitarian Forum (PHF), which is a consortium of more than 60 INGOs functioning in Pakistan, expressed concern over the situation. “A process to regulate the work of INGOs, implemented by the Ministry of Interior since October 2015, this week issued letters of rejection to a number of PHF member INGOs. These INGOs are working in Pakistan on a broad range of issues including education, health, food security, livelihoods opportunities, provision of water and human rights,” stated PHF.

“We have received a letter of disapproval from the Ministry of Interior. However, no reason of this rejection has been mentioned in the letter,” ActionAid Pakistan Country Programme Country Director Iftikhar A Nizami said. He said his organization has been working in Pakistan since 1992 “to strengthen the capacity and active agency of the people living in poverty and exclusion, especially women, to assert their rights.” He said they worked directly with communities to overcome the structural causes and consequences of poverty and injustice.

One of the letters with the subject “application for registration,” issued to an INGO, by a Section Officer of the Interior Ministry reads: “It is informed that online application for registration of your organization as an INGO with the Ministry of Interior, was considered but has not been approved by the INGO committee. It is requested to wind-up operations/activities of above said INGO within 60 days. In case of grievance against the decision of INGO committee in term of clause 7.2 of INGO policy, you may file a representation (within 90 days) before INGO Special Committee.”

One of the affected INGO officials, asking not to be named, said the letters are issued to around 21 INGOs and contain similar content. Some of the INGOs have been told that their case will be reconsidered later on while status of some INGOs has been changed.

Another country director of an affected INGO said that it is odd to receive such a letter without any explanation. “Strangely, the government tells us to wind-up operation within 60 days while gives right to appeal to be filed within 90 days and that the appeal will be decided after that period,” he said, adding, “How can an INGO file an appeal when they will not have a legal ground after closing its operation within 60 days. How will we communicate and on what grounds?” He said courts were another option for the INGOs but they’d like to appeal Pakistani government to come up with clear reasons and make the process transparent and give the disapproved INGOs time to work until their final appeal on all forums are decided. Also, there are serious questions about the staff and closing on going activities too, he maintained.

Pakistan has hardened its policies towards international aid groups, aiming to filter them amid suspicion of spying operations. In 2012, a Pakistan intelligence report linked the aid group Save the Children to the doctor, Shakeel Afridi, who the CIA used to carry out a fake vaccination programme as they searched for Al-Qaeda chief Osama bin Laden. Save the Children has always denied it had any links with Afridi or the CIA. But the charity’s expat staff was forced to leave Pakistan after the accusations emerged.

Pakistan introduced a new policy of registration of INGOs in October 2015. The role of intelligence agencies has been broadened and the process of registration has been made very complicated under the new policy. Earlier, the INGOs were mostly working through Memorandums of Understanding (MoUs) and acknowledgments of the country’s Economic Affairs Division (EAD). After the approval of new policy in the last quarter of 2015, registration of all the INGOs in Pakistan was cancelled with the direction to apply for fresh registration.

The Section 7.2 of the new “Policy for regulation of International Non-governmental Organizations (INGOs) in Pakistan” reads that “In case of grievance of any INGO against the orders of INGO Committee, the concerned INGO may file a representation (within 90 days from the date of orders of INGO Committee) before a Special Ministerial Committee to be constituted and notified by the Government. The said Committee would decide all representations within 90 days. The decision of this Committee would be final.”

The new policy sated that security clearance shall be obtained by Pakistan Missions abroad before issuing initial visa to the foreign nationals intending to work for INGOs. “Hiring of foreign nationals by the INGOs in their management and staff shall be subject to prior clearance of Ministry of Interior. Maximum duration of visas for non-Pakistani nationals working for the INGOs will be one year. And the INGO will have to employ foreign nationals against not more than 10 per cent of the total staff positions, and give preference to Pakistani nationals for key positions,” it elaborates. One of the rules also states, “there shall be no activity until respective provincial governments and concerned district authorities are informed regarding the NGOs’ programmes in their areas and their approval for carrying out permissible activities is obtained.”

The Interior Ministry declined to comment on the subject despite repeated effort. Its website also does not show any list of disapproved INGOs. However, it shows the draft of new policy, number of applicant INGOs under new policy, cases under consideration and cases approved.  According to the till-now updated figures, Interior Ministry has received 139 applications of INGOs to get registered under new policy. Out of them, 71 are still under process (despite a lapse of almost three years now). A number of 66 have been approved and 63 have signed a proper Memorandum of Understanding with the Ministry.

“This situation leads to the perception that the security establishment has taken upon itself to accept or reject foreign NGOs for operations inside Pakistan. This development reflects the establishment’s paranoia with the human rights-based civil society interventions in health, education and skills development,” Imtiaz Gul, a prominent strategic analyst and a writer said. He believes any closure or suspension directly impacts livelihoods of people associated with the INGOs and it will be unjustified to punish workers and deprive youth of capacity building opportunities in the name of national security.

A number of foreign missions in Pakistan have already expressed concern on the current registration process for INGOs. They, recently, wrote to Interior Minister that the process is having negative impact on delivery of service.

The letter further read: “We remain fully supportive of a clear and transparent registration process. However, we are concerned that the registration process is having a negative impact on delivery of humanitarian and development assistance. All the INGOs, which we have engaged with over the past months also support the concept of registration but are keen that the process be brought to close.”

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