Stateless and helpless: the plight of ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan | Human rights
Karachi, Pakistan – Kiran Jaffar and Kulsoom Yamir are teenage gymnasts from the city of Karachi, southern Pakistan, who hope to represent the country at international events.
But both know that, as it is, they have no chance of making this dream come true. They are stateless Bengalis in Pakistan. Without official ID, they cannot move forward.
Jaffar, 15, and Yamir, 14, live in Machar settlement, one of Karachi’s largest slums, home to around 700,000 people.
For these girls and their families, living there means living in the streams of overcrowded houses, unfinished roads and poor sanitation as part of their daily lives.
According to Tahera Hasan, lawyer and director of the charity Imkaan Welfare Organization, around 65% of the inhabitants of the Machar settlement are ethnic Bengalis and more than half of them do not have citizenship or are stuck in the process. get one.
Yamir says she wants to “move forward in my life as a gymnast, maybe even become a coach”.
Jaffar, with her bright smile, shares the same goal: “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, which is why it is very difficult for us to go to a proper school and even have a bank account,” Yamir told Al Jazeera.
Growing up in extreme poverty
The girls train at a learning and recreation center called Khel (which means sport in Urdu) located in the slum.
The center offers an educational and sports learning space for 170 disadvantaged children, including Jaffar and Yamir.
Inside, Khel’s appearance contrasts with the grim reality of the slum he is in – colorful walls, upbeat music, floor mats, and balancing beams.
Stateless Bengalis, as well as Pathan children, dressed in tights and yellow shirts, ages 5 to 15, rigorously perform acrobatic movements with the help of their coaches.
Jaffar and Yamir seamlessly conquer reverse downforce, fast backflips, cart wheels, front and rear walkovers.
“It was a big challenge to train these children as gymnasts,” coach Muhammad Furqan, who has been training the children for five years, told Al Jazeera.
“They all grew up in extreme poverty. They have never even seen a park in their life. Living in such hardships, they don’t know what compassion and gymnastics really were.
He then takes care of helping energetic young gymnasts perform backflips and cartwheels.
There is laughter and teasing if one loses balance and falls.
Ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan – around two million – are the most discriminated ethnic community.
Many of them lived in the country even before the 1971 civil war that led to the creation of present-day Bangladesh, which was previously East Pakistan.
Even though they were born in Pakistan, ethnic Bengalis are deprived of any official recognition and citizenship.
They cannot vote or have access to public health or government schools.
“They call us foreigners, refugees, foreigners, depriving us of our rights,” Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, chairman of the Pakistan Bengali Action Committee, told Al Jazeera.
He has been defending and leading legal battles for the rights of the Bengali community since 1993.
“We are stuck in a constant struggle to gain recognition in this country. Many people in my community do not have identity cards and are stateless. Even though they lived on this land even before the 1971 war. We are Bengalis, but we are Pakistani Bengalis.
Initially, many Bengalis who decided to stay in Pakistan after the war received the first manual identity cards, which were issued in the country from 1973.
But the main problem for the population began after the digitization of identity cards and the establishment of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in 2000.
“People started having problems after the digitization process was put in place,” lawyer Hasan said.
“Documentation requirements have changed and it has been difficult for people to meet them. “
Following digitization, the creation of the National Aliens Registration Authority (NARA) in the same year – to register immigrants and foreign residents – let Bengalis fall into the category of foreigners, despite residing in the country. Pakistan for decades.
“The implementation of NARA has systematically started to discriminate against the Bengali speaking population,” added Hasan.
“There were Bengalis with Pakistani passports and ID cards who later forcibly received NARA cards. The Bengali community was forced to take biometric data from NARA, automatically revoking their citizenship. “
According to Siraj, “since 2002 their identity cards started to be blocked and they were considered foreign cases”.
In 2015, NARA merged with NADRA but the issue of identity cards for Bengali citizens has still not been resolved.
Although the most recent foreigner registration process, introduced by NADRA, was intended to facilitate the registration of non-natives and foreigners residing in Pakistan as “foreigners”, it is intended to further discriminate against the rights of foreigners. the Bengali community.
“The program completely ignores the right to citizenship as granted by birthright law. It violates that right, ”Hasan said.
Siraj, meanwhile, reminded authorities that “many Bengalis have been living in Pakistan since before 1971, we have the right to vote and to be legal citizens of the state.”
NADRA officials did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
Prime Minister Khan “broke his promise”
In 2018, ahead of his electoral victory, Imran Khan promised to grant Bengalis in Pakistan national identity cards and citizenship.
“There are [Bengali] children who were born in Pakistan, and even their ancestors have lived in the country for decades and are not granted citizenship despite birthright laws. It’s exploitation and the problem needs to be resolved, ”Khan said at the time.
Three years later, the declarations have not yet been made.
“Khan has promised that if his PTI party wins, the Bengalis will get ID cards,” Siraj said.
“He said this at the governor’s house in Karachi and even at the National Assembly. But he broke his promise.
Shireen Mazari, a senior PTI politician and Pakistan’s federal human rights minister, declined to comment when approached by Al Jazeera.
Shafqat Mehmood, another senior PTI official, did not respond when contacted by email while current Home Secretary Sheikh Rasheed said, through his aide, that ‘he had “no idea what the problem was due to many technicalities”.
“Children suffer the most”
Jaffar and Yamir, along with their parents, were born in Pakistan. According to the Pakistani Citizenship Law of 1951, anyone born in Pakistan after the entry into force of the law has the right to claim citizenship.
None of Jaffar and Yamir’s family have identity cards. For them, competing at the national level or representing Pakistan in an international tournament is impossible.
“Pakistan has one of the most progressive birthright laws. They are not discriminatory at all, ”Hasan said. “The main problem is in the implementation. “
As a result, children suffer the most. Without any legal documents confirming citizenship, they cannot be admitted to public schools.
Their prospects of achieving a proper education, or something similar, are hampered.
“Children in our community are denied all of their rights. Children cannot even go to public schools and receive an education, ”Siraj told Al Jazeera.
Hasan added that “as the lives of these children are at a standstill, with no hope and no progress, [children] get trapped in unwanted activities ”.
As the lives of these children find themselves at a standstill, with no hope and no progress, they find themselves trapped in unwanted activities.
As Jaffar and Yamir are not formally enrolled in a school, they receive private lessons in Khel, the center, for two hours a day.
The duo are energetic, disciplined and determined. Their day starts early. They train hard as gymnasts until noon but also help their families with household chores before that. In the afternoon, they attend a local madrassa (religious school).
For Jaffar’s mother, Khalida, the bureaucracy to obtain an ID card has been tedious. She is 40 years old and lost her parents when she was only five years old.
“I have been at Machar Colony since I was a child. My parents were also born here. Yet I still can’t get an ID card, ”Khalida explains.
With meager resources and a husband who works as a guardian, Jaffar’s mother prays for better days for the children, hoping for the day when her daughter will become a successful gymnast.
“I don’t have a son, but I don’t care. My daughter is very good at gymnastics. We really support her and always hope for her success in sport and her life for the future. “
The international community has ignored the human rights violations perpetrated against the Bengali community in Pakistan, said social worker and lawyer Rana Asif Habib.
“Even international humanitarian organizations do not recognize this urgent problem,” Habib said.
“Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, as well as the United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child. Yet the government does not respect these international instruments and the Bengalis here are still in trouble. “
For Hasan, “it is vital to simplify the process of birth registration and make it a one-stop-shop to ensure that children born in Pakistan are not deprived of their basic rights.”
For Jaffar, hope is “an identity card solution”.
“My parents are always stressed because we can’t accomplish anything without citizenship. It is only once I become a citizen that I will be able to continue and play at the national level, ”she said.
But as the two girls balance each other on the beam together, their expressions while doing gymnastics don’t betray their concerns.
“My family and I have the right to become citizens. But how can we proceed up to this point without any ID? Yamir asks.