ISLAMABAD - Ministry of Interior Thursday shut down operations of around 18 international aid groups and ordered them to leave the country.

ActionAid, an international non-government organisation which works in areas of education, poverty alleviation, women empowerment and human rights, said that it had received an expulsion notice from the Ministry of Interior. It said that Pakistan’s “hard-won democracy” will be the ultimate victim of this decision.

All these 18 INGOs had already filed an appeal before the Ministry of Interior against its expulsion orders issued last year. The ministry last year had cancelled MoUs of 27 INGOs but later they were given relief after their representatives met with the then interior minister Ahsan Iqbal. The ministry had asked them to continue with their operations till the final decision on their appeals.

Now the PTI government has rejected appeals of 18 international relief organizations. The order of the ministry told these groups to re-apply for fresh registration after six months without mentioning any reason for the expulsion order.

A spokesperson of the interior ministry did not respond despite repeated attempts.

ActionAid in a statement said that the Pakistani government’s decision to expel its operations was an attack on civil society and human rights organisations

Adriano Campolina, Chief Executive of ActionAid International said: “The decision to shut down ActionAid’s and other International NGOs’ activities in Pakistan is a worrying escalation of recent attacks on civil society, academics and journalists.”

“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. If these trends continue, Pakistan’s democracy itself will be the ultimate victim,” the chief executive said.

The statement said Pakistan had the world’s sixth biggest population, but a fifth of the people were still living in poverty. Women face massive challenges in Pakistani society. Although women make up the majority of the agricultural workforce, men own most of the land. ActionAid has been supporting the people of Pakistan for more than 25 years. “We help vulnerable groups including women, street children and people with disabilities,” the statement said.

Action Aid said that they were devastated that this life-changing support was now under threat, and they were taking legal advice on potential next steps. “In the meantime we are providing support to our staff and partners on the ground,” it concluded.