In our prayers for the poor and oppressed of this world, including those in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, we can be somewhat forgiven for ignoring the plight of more than a quarter million ghetto dwellers in squalid camps in Bangladesh. These are the Biharis, forgotten remnants of the 1971 Indo-Pak war leading to the birth of Bangladesh, and there are very few voices that bring their miserable conditions to the fore.
While the United Nations Universal Declaration of Human Rights states every person has a right to nationality, these â€œstranded Pakistanisâ€ enjoy no such luxury. For the past 37 years, they have been languishing in 66 squalid camps spread across Bangladesh, each no bigger than a football field, with poor sanitation and shortage 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, have only limited job options and few, if any, economic prospects. They are refugees. Although they did not flee their country, their country appears to have forgotten them.
In pre-independence India, they were a Muslim minority in the state 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 collaborators who had â€œsupported the enemy.â€
Their first choice was to leave the new nation and go to what was left of Pakistan. 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 a massive influx could destabilize the country. Now they find themselves in a legal limbo facing an even more despondent future.
A few groups have tried to help these people and come up with a worthy solution. One was the Rabita Trust established in 1988 under the auspices of the then Pakistani President Zia ul-Haque, and Dr. Abdullah Omar Naseef, the then secretary-general of the Muslim World League. They put forth a proposal to organize the repatriation of the stranded Pakistanis and settle 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 3000 destitute families were issued Pakistani ID cards back in 1992 and over 1000 housing units were built in the Punjab to accommodate them. Unfortunately, funds were not forthcoming, and the political changes in Pakistan in recent years had slowly pushed this issue to the backburner. Meanwhile, the camp dwellers suffer in silence. The Pakistani Repatriation Council (PRC), made up of some dedicated individuals who want to see an end to this injustice, has been highlighting the issue of stranded Biharis and appealing to successive governments in Pakistan to resolve the problem. In their recent proposal, they suggest the following:
â€œThe government of Bangladesh should be included as a full member of the Rabita Trust. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bangladeshi government had recently announced that they would selectively issue national passports for those born in the camps, their presence in the trust is essential.
â€œThe Pakistani High Commissioner (ambassador) in Bangladesh should play an active part in ensuring the protection and security of these stranded refugees.
â€œThe government of Pakistan should demand â€˜refugee statusâ€™ from the United Nations High Commissioner 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.
â€œThose families who were previously issued Pakistani nationality cards and who still suffer in the camps should be repatriated as a matter of priority.
â€œThe Rabita Trust, frozen by President Musharraf back in 2001 should be reactivated to allow the building projects to continue.
â€œOrganization of the Islamic Conference (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.
â€œGulf countries facing a shortage of semi-skilled labor due to an unprecedented building boom could offer meaningful employment to these people living beyond hope.â€
Pakistan faces many challenges. But one of them should be the protection of rights for all its citizens. While the PRC is actively promoting the cause of these destitute people, it cannot do everything. It is our moral obligation to keep the issue alive.