Pakistan’s ‘Invisible Refugees’ Burden Cities

The Khan family made it through Taliban rule, a military offensive and the three-day journey to this crowded city.

Seventy-five members of the extended Khan family have been sharing three rooms and one bathroom in Mardan. The man lying on the floor was recovering from a recent stomach operation.

But after more than a month of living together — 75 people, three rooms, one bathroom — they might not survive one another.

“This is a test for us,” said Akhtar Jan, a mother of four who is part of the extended family. “If we don’t smile, we would be dead from crying.”

Pakistan is experiencing its worst refugee crisis since partition from India in 1947, and while the world may be familiar with the tent camps that have rolled out like carpets since its operation against the Taliban started in April, the overwhelming majority of the nearly three million people who have fled live unseen in houses and schools, according to aid agencies.

They are the invisible refugees, and their numbers have swollen the populations of towns like this one northwest of the capital, Islamabad, multiplying burdens on already sagging roads, schools, sewers and water supplies, and, not least, on their host families.

Most fled suddenly, without cash or belongings, and many have limited access to the millions of dollars in international aid that has been flowing in.

“People aren’t noticing them,” said Michael McGrath, Pakistan director of Save the Children, an aid organization that has focused on refugees outside of camps. “Their needs are not being met.”

Their hardships have made time of the essence. Refugees said they left their homes because they believed that the government was serious about stopping the militants this time. The more time passes, the more good will is lost, and the more likely they are to become frustrated with the war effort.

“This is it,” Hamid Akbar, 25, a refugee from the Swat Valley, said in Peshawar, the regional capital. “The military isn’t going to get another chance.”

But as far as the refugee crisis goes, the provincial and federal governments’ response has been haphazard, or non-existent. Refugees said in interviews last week that they saw no evidence of government assistance.

The main relief effort is instead carried out by aid organizations and the United Nations, which register refugees in the tent camps, most which are far from the city centers. Many of the displaced did not know how to register, or even that they could.

All of this puts the burden on their host families, who, according to a survey conducted by Save the Children, have taken in more than two families each. (The average family size is 10.)

It is a colossal act of charity. The survey found that only a third of refugees were living with relatives. The rest were staying with friends and even strangers.

“It would have been a disaster if these people didn’t take them into their homes,” said Azam Khanis, who is coordinating the provincial government’s aid effort.

But that generosity is not endless. It has been more than a month since Pakistan began the operation in Swat, and host families are tiring of their guests.

Ms. Jan said her family navigated daily life by assigning numbers to family members, divvying up bathroom time, sleeping time, and the time for cooking, which takes place over two blue propane gas canisters in a courtyard.

At night, 25 women and children sleep together in her room, covering the stone floor like a blanket. “Foot on mouth, hand in face,” are the words Ms. Jan uses to describe it.

They have taken over three spare rooms in a building reserved for guests that belongs to a local businessman. They get free lunches at a nearby school, but the rice is full of pebbles. For dinner, they are on their own. On a recent night, Ms. Jan cooked turnips.

“We are forgotten,” said Shah Khan, one of her cousins.

The Swat Valley, where the Khan family is from, is cool, green and full of streams and forests, and the searing heat of Mardan is unfamiliar. Children were lying in wilted forms on mats on the floor.

Hamza Bakht, 14, spends his days on the street for relief from the stifling two-room apartment where his 40-member family is living. When he was home in the Swat Valley, his parents shut him inside and forbade him to go out after school, for fear that he would be forcibly recruited by the Taliban, whose foot soldiers were mostly teenagers.