Pakistani children in the Sanghar flood zone in November. International… (Rizwan Tabassum / AFPGetty…)
ISLAMABAD, PAKISTAN — International aid groups say they're under siege in Pakistan, demonized by hard-line Islamists, viewed as spies by suspicious Pakistanis and, now, increasingly sidelined by the government.
The groups report that in the last year, they began to feel unwanted in the country, and in some cases persecuted. Nongovernmental organization visa requests languished or were outright rejected. New travel restrictions hampered aid workers' movement. Some workers were arrested and harassed.
Western aid officials believe that the Pakistani government's suspicions about the groups rose dramatically last year after the U.S. commando raid that killed Osama bin Laden in May in the military city of Abbottabad.
To many Pakistanis, a phony vaccination campaign engineered by the CIA to help pinpoint Bin Laden's whereabouts in the weeks before the raid reinforced long-held conspiracy theories that Western humanitarian projects camouflaged espionage operations.
"All of a sudden we were all doing subversive spy work; we generally feel that's how we're viewed here," said a Western aid official, who, like other Westerners interviewed for this article, asked to remain anonymous because of the sensitivity of the subject. "Obviously, we don't like any of those associations. That's what we're fighting against all the time."
The Pakistani government denies allegations of a clampdown on the groups.
"It's not the policy of the government of Pakistan," said a senior Pakistani official, who spoke on the condition of anonymity because he is not authorized to talk about such matters. "We are here to facilitate international NGOs."
Aid officials see it differently. A U.S. citizen working for a Western group was detained for nine days last year in the southern city of Sukkur after Pakistani authorities discovered he had overstayed his visa by a day, said a source familiar with the incident. Local police finally decided to deport him, but not before parading him in front of TV crews.
"There were a lot of rumors that he was a spy," the source said. "It was a way for local authorities to assert themselves and show who's boss, to show they were watching."
The aid group Save the Children had to fly eight of its expatriate workers out of the country last summer because of concern that Pakistan's main intelligence agency, Inter-Services Intelligence, might detain them, Britain's Guardian newspaper reported last fall. A Pakistani doctor involved in the fake CIA vaccination campaign had falsely claimed that he worked for Save the Children, helping trigger the government's scrutiny of the group. The doctor is now in Pakistani custody and faces possible treason charges.
The International Committee of the Red Cross announced this month it had shut down three of its offices in northwestern Pakistan because it had become increasingly difficult for some of the organization's personnel to access those offices. Other offices will also be shut down soon, said Marek Resich, a spokesman for the Red Cross mission in Pakistan. The organization will maintain its offices in Islamabad, Peshawar, Karachi and Quetta.
Resich would not say whether Pakistani authorities were impeding the organization's work, or why Red Cross personnel were unable to get to their offices. However, a source familiar with the closures said the Red Cross shut down the offices because authorities last year began barring non-Pakistani Red Cross workers and officials from visiting branch offices in the northwest.
Last summer, a top Red Cross official complained about the growing level of government interference in Pakistan.
"To live and work and get permission to do anything has become more difficult," Pascal Cuttat, the departing head of the Red Cross delegation in Pakistan, said in July during a news conference in Geneva. "Everyone is struggling with the bureaucracy."
Pakistanis have always been suspicious of foreigners, particularly Westerners. Hard-line Islamist clerics and analysts routinely warn that the U.S. will one day wrest control of the country's nuclear arsenal, or that CIA agents lurk behind every corner.
In 2011, the animosity reached new heights with the killing in January of two Pakistani men by a CIA contractor, and with the Bin Laden raid and subsequent revelation about the CIA vaccination ruse.
"It was a very weird year," said Jerome Voisin, a field coordinator with the French aid group Solidarites, which conducts relief efforts in Sindh province, a region devastated by floods in 2010 and '11. "It seems international NGOs are not seen here as partners. There is this kind of suspicious climate here."
Dozens of nongovernmental organizations work in Pakistan, and some have had a presence in the country for decades.