Pakistan's expulsion of 18 international aid agencies will hurt 11 million aid recipients in a South Asian nation grappling with perilously low standards of education and health care, two Western diplomats said Tuesday.
Affected NGOs include World Vision, Pathfinder, Plan International, Trocaire and Saferworld, while another group, ActionAid, last week said it was closing offices and laying off staff after the government told it to halt operations and leave.
U.S. State Department spokeswoman Heather Nauert said the United States "regrets" Pakistan's decision and noted that many of the 18 groups had worked in the country for years, employing thousands of Pakistanis and working to improve the lives of ordinary people.
Pakistan's interior ministry confirmed it had rejected the appeals of 18 NGOs that had been allowed to continue operations while their appeals were being reviewed, but declined to give further details.
Aid groups and western diplomats have criticized a lack of transparency in the process of expulsion and the review of appeals by the aid agencies, saying they crimped humanitarian work.
"It is as appalling as it is inexplicable that the government has decided to deprive 11 million of its own people of much-needed support with no apparent reason," a Western diplomat told Reuters, asking not to be identified.
The interior ministry did not immediately respond to the diplomats' comments, instead referring Reuters to a statement by Pakistan's foreign office last month.
In its Nov. 15 statement, the foreign office said policies regarding international aid groups were "fully aligned" with nationally determined development priorities and needs, and that Islamabad appreciated the assistance provided by donor agencies.
"Representatives of all 18 INGOs were given the right to appeal and the opportunity to provide additional details and discuss mutual concerns," it added.
"As for shrinking space, the evidence is contrary to assertions. Out of 141 that applied for registration since October 2015, applications of 74 INGOs have been approved."
A total of 27 international NGOs received expulsion orders late last year, but 18 appealed. Most of the affected groups worked on human rights and advocacy issues.
This week's expulsion orders come amid complaints by Pakistani journalists about growing curbs on media freedom, though Islamabad has clamped down on foreign-funded aid groups for years.
"The international community is disappointed by the recent forced closures of a number of international NGOs," another Western diplomat told Reuters.
"We have consistently expressed our concern to the government and continue to urge a clear and transparent process to ensure INGOs can operate effectively in Pakistan or understand the reasons for their eviction."