Imran Khan, the Prime Minister of Pakistan faced many challenges when he took office. He has to turn his country around, a country that has suffered for decades under the ravages of unfettered looting which has crippled the economy and left the country in serious debt.
Ever since he assumed high office, Khan has been trying to fix things, much to the chagrin of his detractors and his efforts seem to be succeeding. Pakistan is returning to some form of economic stability and financial benchmarks are attesting to a positive change in Pakistan’s fortunes. Imran Khan had to tackle many fronts and while he stumbled on some, he managed to bring most of them back on track.
However, one area that continues to demand his attention is the fate of Pakistanis stuck in Bangladesh. Lost among the poor and oppressed of this world, including those in Palestine, Myanmar and elsewhere are more than a quarter million ghetto dwellers in squalid camps in Bangladesh. These are the forgotten remnants of the Indo-Pakistan partition, victims of a war imposed on them 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 60 years, they have been spread across Bangladesh in 66 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.
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 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 destabilise 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 the Muslim World League.
They put forth a proposal to organise the repatriation of the stranded Pakistanis. An estimated 40,000 homes were to be built and were to be freely allocated to those Bihari migrants in the Punjab province of Pakistan.
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 last three decades had slowly pushed this issue on the back-burner.
The Pakistani Repatriation Council (PRC), an NGO 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 partner in the negotiations. Notwithstanding the fact that the Bangladeshi government had recently announced that they would selectively issue national passports for those born in the camps, their support in this matter of relocation is essential.
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 Organization of Islamic Countries (OIC) should include this matter on their agenda and persuade national and international aid organisations to extend necessary sustenance allowances until they are repatriated.
Pakistan today faces many challenges. But one of them should be the protection of rights for all its constituents. While NGOs like the PRC are 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.
Tariq A. Al Maeena is a Saudi sociopolitical commentator. He lives in Jeddah, Saudi Arabia. Twitter: @talmaeena