Stateless migrants suffer in Dhaka

Migrant Muslims from India, who sided with Pakistan in 1971 war and sought asylum in various camps in Bangladesh, hope they will be repatriated.

Schoolchildren sing both the Pakistani and Bangladeshi national anthem in the morning at their school in Dhaka.
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DHAKA // Every morning before classes begin, the children of the Non-Local Surovi School in Dhaka assemble in a narrow forecourt to sing not one national anthem, but two. Drowning out the sounds of the crowded slum that squeezes the school on all sides, the students raise their voices first in praise of Bangladesh, then Pakistan. The irony is that the children, who range in age from five to 14, are not citizens of either of the countries whose songs they sing.

Instead, they are stateless, born into a community of Urdu speakers who were disenfranchised when Bangladesh won its independence from Pakistan in a bloody war in 1971. "We consider ourselves to be Pakistanis and we live in the hope that today or tomorrow we will be repatriated," said Shoukat Ali, 56, headmaster of the school that is located in an area known as Camp Geneva. Having signed options to move to Pakistan - where Urdu is the main language - after the war, the community has spent 37 years living in camps that were supposed to provide temporary shelter.

But after years of lobbying to get Pakistan, a country they have never seen, to accept them, the younger generation has increasingly pinned their hopes on integration into Bangladesh society. Now, for the first time, the majority of camp dwellers will be allowed to vote in parliamentary elections next month following a ruling by Bangladesh's High Court that they hope could see them finally accepted as Bangladeshi citizens.

"This is a historic verdict," said Sadakat Khan, the president of the Urdu-Speaking People's Youth Rehabilitation Movement, the organisation that brought the case to court. "We had such a poor life growing up in the camps, no facilities, no education, no job opportunities." Like most Urdu speakers, Mr Khan is the descendant of Muslims from India who were part of the mass migration that accompanied the breakup of the subcontinent along religious lines at independence from the British in 1947.

Partition created two countries - India with a Hindu majority and Pakistan with a Muslim majority, comprising its present day territory and what is now Bangladesh. Apart from a shared Islamic faith, East and West Pakistan, as they were called, had little in common - located more than 1,800km apart on either sides India, the two regions have different languages, histories and cultures. Initially, many of those Muslims who migrated to East Pakistan from India - mostly from the eastern state of Bihar - flourished in their new homeland.

Hindus, who had fled in the other direction to India, had left behind jobs and property that the Biharis - as the Muslim migrants became known - occupied. The problems began when the ethnic Bengali majority in East Pakistan revolted against rule from the West and the Pakistani government sent in the armed forces. Many Biharis sided with Pakistan during the nine-month war and some joined militias that, along with the military, were responsible for the deaths of three million Bengalis.

After independence in 1971, the Bengalis exacted their revenge on the Urdu-speakers, killing thousands. More than a million Urdu-speakers entered Red Cross camps set up to protect them and 500,000 signed options to relocate to Pakistan. As the years passed, however, less than half of the original number were ever moved, earning the group another name - "stranded Pakistanis". Today, there are more than 250,000 stateless Urdu speakers in 116 camps scattered across Bangladesh, according to a report by the UNHCR, the United Nation's refugee agency.

"It's a horrible life here," said Sharjahan Begum, 36, a housewife who was born in Camp Geneva the year it was founded. At Camp Geneva, rooms that were allocated to one family are now shared by several generations. Every morning, more than 25,000 people queue up to use 150 toilets that regularly overflow, and there are only five water pumps which have to provide water for washing laundry, drinking and bathing.

Livestock roam the narrow streets and piles of rubbish are left to decompose at the end of every alleyway. Without Bangladeshi citizenship, the camps' residents have also been barred from jobs in the formal sector and have difficulty getting access to public services such as health care and education. But while Biharis are unanimous in their dislike for their situation, they are divided about what to do about it.

The Stranded Pakistani General Repatriation Committee, which had dominated the community until recently and reflects the wishes of the older generation, is still pushing for relocation. "Twice we have chosen to be Pakistanis, once when we moved here from India during Partition and again when Bangladesh split from Pakistan. We have sacrificed everything to achieve this," said Mr Ali, who also heads up the committee.

Fluttering above his office in Camp Geneva is a Pakistani flag with a red strip sewed on the side to represent, he said, the suffering of the people below. The younger generation, however, speak Bangla as well as they do Urdu, and feel Bangladeshi in all but name. "We've never been stranded Pakistanis. Yes, we were stranded in the camps but were born and brought up here, so I am a Bangladeshi," Mr Khan said.

Now, according to the High Court's decision in May, any Urdu-speaker who was a minor in 1972, or who was born after that date, can renounce allegiance to Pakistan and vote in the general election. Not far from Mr Khan's office at Football Ground Camp, one family proudly display their new voter identification cards. Abdul Khalid, 38, and his wife Tahanara Begum, 25, live and work in a one-room shack that they share with their four children and his elderly father. They registered to vote two months ago.

"Earlier we were helpless, we were invisible," Mr Khalid said. "Now that I am a Bangladeshi I can stand up for all of my rights." But Mr Khalid is one of only a small minority who have registered legally. Many others are thought to have registered illegally by using false addresses, but when the government allowed a special 10-day window for Biharis to register, only 22,000 signed up. Some are fearful that if they formalise their status as Bangladeshi citizens the government will no longer be obliged to provide free water and electricity to the camps. Worse still, they fear they may be evicted to make way for developers.

"We respect the decision, but it will not bring fruit to us," Mr Ali said. "What will I do with a voter card if I don't have basic amenities? What we need is a package deal." So for now, despite the court decision, the children of Surovi school will continue to start the day with two national anthems. As Ridoy Rabbani, age 6, it: "I am Pakistani but I want to live in Bangladesh, that is why we sing both songs."