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Pakistan 's Forgotten Ghetto Residents
By Tariq A. Al-Maeena
In our prayers for the poor and oppressed of this world, including those in Palestine, Iraq and Afghanistan, we can be somewhat be 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 Indo-Pakistan partition, and there are very few voices that bring their destitute conditions to the fore.
While The United Nation Universal Declaration of Human Rights states every person has a right to nationality, these 'stranded Pakistanis' enjoy no such luxury. For the past 37 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 as collaborators and 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 a massive influx could destabilize the country. The legal limbo they find themselves in predicts and even more despondent future.
There have been a few groups that have tried to break free this limbo and come up with a worthy solution. On of them was the Rabita Trust established in 1988 under the auspices of the then Pakistani President, the late Gen. Zia-ul-Haque, 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 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 very forthcoming, and the political changes in Pakistan over the recent years had slowly pushed this issue on the back-burner. Meanwhile, the camp dwellers suffer in silence.
The Pakistani Repatriation Council (PRC) made up of moral and dedicated individuals who want to correct this travesty of justice has been busy since highlighting 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 recently 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 refuges.
The government of Pakistan should demand 'refugee status' from the United Nations High Commission for Refuges (UNHCR) for these people to allow them to receive essential UN aid in the form of food, medicine, education and other basis 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. Pervaiz Musharraf back in 2001 should be re-activated to allow the building projects to continue.
The Organization of Islamic Countries (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.
Gulf countries facing a shortage of semi-skilled labor due to an unprecedented building boom could offer meaningful employment to these people living beyond hope."
Pakistan today 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 mortals, it alone cannot do everything. It is also our moral obligation as citizens of this world not to ignore the forgotten.
The writer is a Saudi socio/political commentator. He lives in Jeddah , Saudi Arabia and can be reached at email@example.com