Pakistan tells 18 international NGOs to leave: ActionAid

ISLAMABAD (Reuters) - Pakistan has ordered 18 international aid agencies to shut down operations and leave the country, the ActionAid charity said on Thursday, in what would be Islamabad’s latest move against foreign-funded groups.

Most of the groups do work on human rights issues, and a previous shutdown order accused one aid agency of pursuing “an anti-state agenda”.

ActionAid, which focuses on education, poverty alleviation and human rights and is headquartered in Johannesburg, said it had received an expulsion notice from Pakistan’s Ministry of Interior. The group’s Pakistan country director Abdul Khaliq said no reason was given for the ministry’s decision.

A statement issued by ActionAid called the move “an attack on civil society and human rights organizations”.

ActionAid along with 17 other foreign relief organizations had appealed expulsion orders issued late last year to 27 NGOs in all, mostly those working on human rights issues.

Khaliq told Reuters that an Interior Ministry official had told him on Thursday that “all of the 18 organizations have submitted their appeal to the government of Pakistan and we have rejected the appeal of all of them”.

The letter, a copy of which was seen by Reuters, does not grant the right to appeal, instead allowing aid groups to “re-apply for registration ... after six months”.

“No reason was mentioned in this letter, and in the previous letter it was also not mentioned,” Khaliq said.

Pakistan’s interior ministry did not respond to messages asking about the expulsion orders, and the information ministry said it would check on the matter.

The move came amid complaints by Pakistani journalists about increasing constraints on press freedom, though Islamabad has been clamping down on foreign-funded aid groups for years.

“The immediate victims will be the thousands of ordinary Pakistani families who ActionAid has been supporting to claim their rights and build a better life,” ActionAid’s statement said. “Pakistan’s decision to shut down ActionAid and other International NGOs is a worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society, academics and journalists.”

During an appeal hearing in March, Khaliq said a special committee inquired about details on ActionAid’s work in Pakistan but the organization had not heard from the government since.

“We empower the poor and marginalized people...Due to that approach of human rights, maybe the government does not like that approach...Maybe there is some communication gap between ActionAid work and the government,” Khaliq said.

Reporting by Saad Sayeed; Editing by Mark Heinrich