State-less? The Harsh Reality of Ethnic Bengalis living in Pakistan

he lives of these stateless Bengalis are surrounded by streams of densely packed houses, unfinished roads, and poor sanitary conditions.

Ethnic Bengalis protesting on the streets of Karachi

Karachi’s Machar Colony – one of the largest slums of the country – is home to 700,000 people. Approximately 65 percent of the Machar Colony inhabitants are ethnic Bengalis, and more than half of them have no citizenship or are stuck in the process of acquiring one.

The lives of these stateless Bengalis are surrounded by streams of densely packed houses, unfinished roads, and poor sanitary conditions. Among these people live 15-year-old Kiran Jaffar and 14-year-old Kulsoom Yamir, two teenage gymnasts who have unveiled the harsh reality of Bengalis living in Pakistan.

Kiran Jaffar and Kulsoom Yamir training at Khel for gymnastics

The Story of Kiran and Kulsoom – two stateless Bengalis struggling with Life

The girls aim to represent their country at international gymnast events; however, without an official identification document, they stand no chance of fulfilling that dream. Kiran Jaffar said:

When I grow up, I want to be a professional gymnast and become a coach, teaching the sport to others. But our family is struggling to get an ID card, due to which going to a good school and even something basic as having a bank account is challenging for us.

The girls have trained to be gymnasts at a recreational center called Khel (meaning sport), located in the slum. The center teaches sports to 170 underprivileged children. Contrary to its poor surroundings, Khel features colorful walls, upbeat music, floor mats, balance beams, and children aged 5 to 15 wearing yellow tights and shirts.

Muhammad Furqan, the coach of the training center, stated:

It is a great challenge to train these children as gymnasts. All of them have grown up in extreme poverty. They have never even seen a park in their life. Living under such hardships, they don’t know what compassion and gymnastics are.

Saddened, Kulsoom Yamir asks:

My parents are always stressed because we can’t achieve anything without citizenship. Only after I become a citizen can I proceed and play at the national level. My family and I have the right to become citizens. But how can we move to that point without any ID?

It is sad to see that after much effort and strenuous training, Kiran and Kulsoom still struggle to pursue their passion.

A view of Machar Colony - slum where Bengalis live in Pakistan

The reality of ethnic Bengalis living in Pakistan

According to reports, approximately two million Ethnic Bengalis reside in Pakistan and are known as the most discriminated ethnic community. These people are deprived of any official recognition and citizenship even though they are born in Pakistan. They can’t vote or access public health or government schools since they have no national identity.

Speaking about the grave situation, Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, chairman of the Pakistan Bengali Action Committee who has been fighting for the rights of the Bengali community since 1993, said:

They label us as aliens, refugees, foreign, depriving us of our rights. We are stuck in a constant struggle to get recognition in this country. Many people in my community don’t have ID cards and are stateless even though they lived on this land before the 1971 war. We are Bengalis, but we are Pakistani Bengalis.

Why are Ethnic Bengalis not considered Pakistanis?

Initially, many Bengalis who decided to stay back in Pakistan after the war were given manual ID cards, which were issued in the country in 1973 and onwards. However, in 2000, National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) was established. With the digitization of ID cards, issues for the community begin to rise.

Documentation requirements changed, making it difficult for people to attain a nationality. Eventually, NADRA let Bengalis fall into the category of aliens, despite them residing in Pakistan for decades. Describing the situation, Lawyer Hasan said:

The government introduced NARA (National Alien Registration Authority) – a program launched to legally register and document immigrants and other foreign residents in the country. The implementation of NARA systematically began to discriminate against the Bengali-speaking population. There were Bengali people with Pakistani passports and ID cards who, later, were forcefully given NARA cards. The Bengali community was forced to take biometrics on NARA, automatically canceling their citizenship.

Siraj stated:

Since 2002, the ID cards of ethnic Bengalis started getting blocked, and they were considered foreign cases. In 2015, NARA merged with NADRA, but the issue regarding ID cards for Bengali citizens still did not reach a solution.

Siraj further shared:

Even though NADRA introduced NARA to facilitate the registration of non-natives and foreigners residing in Pakistan under the “alien” category, the program further discriminates against the rights of the Bengali community. The scheme completely ignores the right to have citizenship as granted under the birthright law; it violates that right.

Prime Minister Imran Khan giving a speech

Ethnic Bengalis disappointed with PM Khan

According to sources, Prime Minister Imran Khan promised to grant Bengalis in Pakistan national ID cards and citizenship in 2018, before the election. He said:

There are [Bengali] children who are born in Pakistan. Even their ancestors have lived in the country for decades, but they are not getting citizenship despite birthright laws. This is exploitation, and the issue must be resolved. If my party wins, Bengalis will get ID cards.

However, three years later, when PM Khan’s party won the elections, he did not fulfill his promise. When a media channel reached out to Shireen Mazari, senior PTI politician and Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, and Shafqat Mehmood, another senior PTI leader, they refused to comment on the matter. Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed communicated via his assistant and said:

I have no idea about the issue due to a lot of technical aspects.

NADRA also did not respond to requests for a comment on the reality of ethnic Bengalis living in Pakistan.

It is pertinent to mention that Pakistan’s Citizenship Act of 1951 reads that any person born in Pakistan after the commencement of the Act has the right to claim citizenship. Lawyer Hasan said:

Pakistan has one of the most progressive birthright laws. They are not discriminatory at all, but the main problem comes at the implementation level. As a result, children suffer the most. Without any legal document confirming citizenship, they can’t get admission to public schools. Their prospects of attaining proper education, or anything similar, are stymied.

Hasan further shared:

As the life of these kids hits a deadlock, without hope and no progress, [children] get trapped into undertaking unwanted activities.

Ethnic Bengalis protecting on the streets of Karachi

Will the situation of ethnic Bengalis living in Pakistan improve?

Social worker and lawyer Rana Asif Habib said:

The international community has taken no notice of the human rights violations against the Bengali community in Pakistan. Even international humanitarian organizations are failing to recognize this pressing issue. Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and the United Nations Convention on the Right of a Child. Yet, the government is not complying with these international instruments, and the Bengalis here are still struggling.

Will the Bengalis ever attain the right to vote and become legal citizens of the state? The question remains unanswered. It is hard to say whether the situation of Bengalis living in Pakistan will ever improve – only time will unveil the truth.

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