When is a camp not a camp? When it’s a ‘tent village’
by Damian Lilly July 2006

The Pakistan earthquake on 8 October 2005 left more than three million people homeless, and hundreds of thousands of people displaced. Most internally displaced persons (IDPs) lost their houses, livelihoods and land. Either they took refuge in host families close to their homes or in Pakistan’s larger cities (such as Islamabad and Lahore), or they settled in IDP camps. By December, there was concern that there could be a second wave of displacement from mountainous areas as the onset of harsh winter conditions forced more families from their homes. Although milder than expected weather meant far fewer new arrivals than feared, by the end of the winter over 297,000 IDPs were living in camps as a result of the earthquake.

The displacement of earthquake survivors and their settlement into myriad camps presented unique challenges for the government and aid agencies, proving to be one of the major issues of the relief effort. By December, there were 25 official camps and an estimated 1,000 self-settled camps. This article analyses the IDP camp phenomenon after the earthquake, highlighting some of the issues encountered by national and international actors, as well as the implications for the wider emergency relief community.


From ‘official camps’ to ‘tent villages’

The main policy and operational challenge involved with IDP assistance in the earthquake response concerned the scale and range of the different IDP camps and settlements that sprang up, and in turn how basic services could be provided to them. The terminology used for the plethora of different types of camps and settlements included ‘official camps’, ‘planned camps’, ‘spontaneous camps’, ‘self-settled camps’ and ‘tent villages’ (a relatively new arrival in the humanitarian lexicon, introduced by the Pakistani authorities). Each of these terms was used interchangeably, and often imprecisely, to describe the various IDP camps and settlements.

The three distinguishing characteristics of the different kinds of IDP camps were: a) whether the camp population had in fact been displaced from their habitual residence; b) whether the camp contained over or under 50 tents; and c) whether the camp was managed by an official agent, namely the Pakistan military or civilian authorities. This differentiation does not diverge greatly from accepted IDP terminology. However, the multitude of different kinds of camps in various locations led to much confusion. This confusion was more than a problem of semantics – it led to poor analysis of the humanitarian situation, and poor analysis of how it should be addressed.

In particular, the Pakistan military, which was leading the relief effort, tended to refer to all IDP camps as tent villages. For example, in Battagram district the Pakistan military declared the existence of up to 320 spontaneous camps. However, after various assessments no actual IDP camp was identified. All 320 settlements were in fact made up of families living in close proximity to their homes – a more appropriate use of the term tent village.

Genuine internal displacement

The fact that many people were living in tents next to or near their homes after the earthquake made distinguishing IDP camps from the wider population problematic. In many villages, communities congregated in clusters of tents away from their houses, thus resembling a camp setting. In such contexts, a complete breakdown of community services, including water supplies, health clinics and schools, had occurred. Yet because the affected population had not been displaced and had not settled in an official site, they could not be considered as comprising a camp, and assisted as such. Conversely, a number of spontaneous camps sprung up purely with the objective of gaining assistance from the local authorities and aid agencies.

Identifying genuine IDPs accordingly became a key concern. In November, the Inter-Agency Standing Committee (IASC) issued a policy statement urging ‘the need to identify the specific protection and assistance needs that the internally displaced may have on account of their displacement, and that may be distinct from those of the broader affected population’. However, an official registration process of the entire camp population was only conducted by the Pakistan authorities in January 2006. Even after this exercise spontaneous camps, without genuine IDPs, remained on many camp lists used by aid agencies.

Camps with fewer than 50 tents: a neglected part of the earthquake response

The size of camps also mattered in terms of the response. As part of the Camp Management Strategy developed by the Federal Relief Commission (the government agency with overall responsibility for the earthquake response) and the Camp Management Cluster (the UN-led coordination structure for camp management), a distinction was made between camps with more than 50 tents, and those with fewer. UNHCR, the lead agency for the Camp Management Cluster, made it clear that it would only provide assistance in IDP camps with more than 50 tents. This policy was adopted in response to capacity constraints. Priority was given to the larger official camps, where better basic services could be provided, and which were in any case considered a greater risk in terms of disease outbreaks. This arbitrary distinction based on tent numbers was also adopted by the Pakistan authorities, and became the key guiding policy for IDPs, with major humanitarian consequences.

The Camp Management Strategy envisaged that the Pakistan authorities would assimilate smaller spontaneous camps into an increasing number of larger official camps. This did not, however, take place. The Pakistan authorities lacked the resolve and capacity to bring about such a change. Meanwhile, international aid agencies concentrated on the more familiar setting of the larger official camps where an acceptable standard of assistance could be provided. Consequently, spontaneous camps – particularly in urban settings – became a neglected part of the earthquake response.

Although the Camp Management Strategy recognised early on the need to organise a task force to address the urgent needs of IDPs living in spontaneous camps, this was not created until January 2006, more than three months after the earthquake, and was led by OCHA, not UNHCR. Despite their best intentions, aid agencies were unable to ensure equal weighting of services to all areas of displacement, particularly for IDPs in spontaneous camps with fewer than 50 tents. The principal job of the task force in smaller camps was to assess gaps in basic services, including shelter, food, health and education. The results of the assessment revealed the poor state of these camps. For example, in Mansehra district IDPs occupied 15,141 tents with an average of 13 people to a tent, and 6,764 displaced people had no shelter at all. Seventy per cent of the camps had no access to health services. Oxfam claimed in January 2006 that only a handful of the unofficial camps met Sphere standards, and most had missed out on aid provision.

The initial lack of assistance in spontaneous camps also highlighted the challenges and shortcomings of the Cluster approach to coordination, which was adopted for the first time in the Pakistan earthquake response. In September 2005, the IASC had decided that UNHCR would not lead any clusters in emergencies caused by natural disasters. However, UNHCR had worked in Pakistan for many years providing protection and assistance to Afghan refugees, and therefore felt compelled to assume responsibility for the Camp Management cluster. It quickly became apparent that UNHCR lacked the capacity to be the ‘provider of last resort’ – as intended under the Cluster approach – for assistance in all the camps, particularly spontaneous camps with fewer than 50 tents. At one stage, it was left to OCHA to lead the response in these camps. While useful in terms of coordinating inter-agency assessments, this proved problematic since OCHA is a non-operational agency, and as a result shortfalls in assistance to smaller camps continued. An IASC Real Time Evaluation of the Cluster approach in the Pakistan earthquake response in February 2006 noted this shortcoming of the Cluster approach.

The political dimension of camp management

The sheer range of actors involved in managing the IDP camps also presented serious challenges to aid delivery. Although the Pakistan military was the dominant actor in terms of camp management, others included national NGOs, political and religious groups and IDPs themselves. In December, an attempt was made to transfer responsibility for running the official camps from the military to the civilian authorities. This failed, however, revealing the deep disparity of power within the military-dominated government. The civilian authorities, decimated by the earthquake, had little capacity to take on camp management, and the Pakistan military remained in charge of a number of camps.

The political affiliation of some of the organisations managing the camps was also controversial. In particular, the government was heavily criticised by the US for allowing religious parties and militant groups to support and run a number of camps. Allowing these groups to be part of the relief effort was seen as bolstering their presence in earthquake-affected areas, inadvertently empowering extremists and undermining the prospects for democratic reform.

The political-religious groups involved in the relief effort included Islamic organisations such as Jamaat-ud-Dawa, which had been banned by the government for supporting insurgent activity in Indian-administered Kashmir. Other groups, such as the Al Rasheed Trust, had been listed as terrorist organisations by the UN Security Council because of their links with the Taliban and Al-Qaeda in Afghanistan. UN agencies and international NGOs, often unwittingly, established a working relationship with these Islamic organisations, including in some instances banned jihadist groups. A number of aid agencies admitted to being unaware of the background of these groups. Distinguishing bona fide organisations from less legitimate ones proved extremely difficult for outsiders, and even for local aid workers. However, their potentially problematic links with Islamic organisations also exposed the poor contextual analysis of aid agencies.


By March 2006, IDPs from the Pakistan earthquake had begun to return home, and camps in a number of locations were closed. However, many of the challenges outlined in this article remained unresolved. The arbitrary distinction between camps according to whether they had 50 tents or more proved particularly problematic, and arguably led to a form of discrimination in the assistance provided. Shortcomings in the coordination of the response were also exposed, and these will provide important lessons for the development of the Cluster approach in future emergencies. The challenge of distinguishing IDPs from the wider community was the most pressing issue, but this was often sidelined by wranglings over the size of camps and whose responsibility it was to assist them.


References and further reading

South Asian Earthquake Response: Strategy on Camp Management, UN Camp Management Cluster, December 2005, http://www.unhic.org/pakistan.

IASC Evaluation of Cluster Approach in Pakistan, February 2006, http://www.unhic.org/pakistan.

IASC Country Team, ERRA-UN Early Recovery Plan, April 2006, http://www.unhic.org/pakistan.

IASC South Asia Earthquake Task Force Policy Statement, 14 November 2005.

Starting on the Road to Recovery: Saving Lives and Rebuilding Livelihoods after the Pakistan Earthquake, Oxfam Briefing Note, 29 January 2006.

Pakistan: Political Impact of the Earthquake, ICG Asia Briefing 46, 15 March 2006.


Damian Lillyworked for the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) in the earthquake response. This article has been written in a personal capacity; the views expressed do not represent those of the UN. His email address is: damianlilly@yahoo.co.uk.