Pakistan’s forgotten ghetto dwellers

Pakistan’s forgotten ghetto dwellers

Lost among the poor and oppressed of this world, including those in Palestine, Myanmar, Syria and other areas, are more than a quarter million ghetto dwellers in squalid camps in Bangladesh. These are the Biharis, forgotten remnants of the Indo-Pakistan partition and there are very few voices that bring their destitute conditions to the fore.

While the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states every person has a right to nationality, these “stranded Pakistanis” enjoy no such luxury. For the past 47 years, they have been spread across Bangladesh in 66 squalid camps, each no bigger than a football field, with poor sanitation and shortages of running water. Camp conditions are miserable, and large groups of families are often forced to share their living area with animals. They have no rights, limited job options and few economic prospects. They are refugees. Although they did not desert their country, their country appears to have forgotten them.

In pre-independence India, they were a Muslim minority in the region of Bihar. At the time of the partition in 1947, many moved to what was then East Pakistan. When civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan, the Biharis sided with the West. Subsequently in 1971, East Pakistan became the independent state of Bangladesh and these Biharis who had been loyal to Pakistan were denied citizenship because they were deemed to be collaborators who had “supported the enemy”.

Their first choice was to leave the new nation and go to the west, the part of Pakistan that still existed. They expected to be welcomed, and they waited. Almost four decades later, they continue to wait in silence and despair. Pakistan initially denied them permission to emigrate, fearing that a massive influx could destabilize the country. The legal limbo they find themselves in predicts an even more despondent future.

There have been a few groups that have tried to come up with a worthy solution. One of them was the Rabita Trust established in 1988 under the auspices of the then Pakistani President, the late Gen. Zia-ul-Haq, and Dr. Abdullah Naseef the ex-secretary general of the Muslim World League.

They put forth a proposal to organize the repatriation of the stranded Pakistanis and domicile them in the Punjab province of Pakistan. An estimated 40,000 homes were to be built and were to be freely allocated to those Biharis, funding coming primarily through donations.

Over 3,000 destitute families were issued Pakistani ID cards in 1992 and over 1,000 housing units were built in Punjab to accommodate them. Unfortunately, funds were not forthcoming, and the political changes in Pakistan over recent years slowly pushed this issue onto the backburner. Meanwhile, the camp dwellers suffered in silence.

The Pakistani Repatriation Council (PRC) made up of moral and dedicated individuals who want to correct this travesty of justice has highlighted the stranded Pakistani issue to each successive government. In their recent proposal, they suggest the following:

“The government of Bangladesh should be included as a full member of the Rabita Trust. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bangladeshi government had announced that they would selectively issue national passports for those born in the camps, their presence in the Trust is essential.

“The Pakistani High Commissioner in Bangladesh should play an active part in ensuring the protection and security of these stranded refugees.

“The government of Pakistan should demand ‘refugee status’ from the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) for these people to allow them to receive essential UN aid in the form of food, medicine, education and other basic necessities until their issue is finally resolved.

“Those families who were previously issued Pakistani nationality cards and who still suffer in the camps should be repatriated as a matter of priority.

“The Rabita Trust, frozen by Gen. Pervez Musharraf in 2001, should be re-activated to allow the building projects to continue.

“The Organization of Islamic Cooperation (OIC) should include this matter on their agenda and persuade national and international aid organizations to extend necessary sustenance allowances until they are repatriated.

“The IDB, ADB and national banks must loosen their coffers to build an estimated 37,000 homes in Punjab province where land has been previously allocated for the remainder of these stranded Pakistanis.”

Pakistan today faces many challenges. But one of them should be the protection of the rights of all of its citizens. It is what Naya Pakistan is all about.

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