Between Hope and Despair
Generations born in refugee camps of Dhaka are beginning to question the unending sacrifices of their elders and the jeopardized future that looms ahead.
Shortly after 16 December 1971, millions of refugees in Bangladeshi camps questioned their decision to uproot and resettle in a country, which promised them a better future. Four decades later, the same Urdu-speaking Biharis continue to live in the refugee camps of Dhaka, defenseless and stateless.
Bihar is the only state in the region that has faced two mass migrations in three decades. The residents of this state first left their homes in 1947 and moved to East Pakistan, which later became Bangladesh. In 1971, they found themselves trapped in refugee camps following the fall of Dhaka. Today they have no country. For many, the dream of settling down in Pakistan fell apart when East Pakistan became Bangladesh.
According to a survey conducted by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), there are close to 250,000-300,000 Urduspeaking people in Bangladesh. Of these, around 160,000 are languishing in camps, hoping to return to Pakistan someday.
Today, the generations born in these camps question the adamant decisions of their elders to live in refugee camps under dismal conditions. Those who have witnessed war and mass migration refuse to become Bangladeshi nationals, preferring state- lessness instead. But those who were born in 8x8 shanty camps refuse to be a part of this endless struggle and want to start a new life as citizens of Bangladesh. While the old generation dreams of Pakistani citizenship, the new generation argues, “We want to leave Pakistan behind.”
One of these people is Ahmed Ilias who runs an NGO called Alfalah-bd. He is working for the rehabilitation of Urdu-speaking minorities in Bangladesh and staunchly believes that working for repatriation is a futile exercise since Pakistan would never accept
these refugees. Speaking exclusively to Southasia, Ilias explained that the romanticism of settling down in Pakistan is over. The younger generation born in these camps does not want to sacrifice their future for a country that is not ready to accept them. “We want to move forward and leave Pakistan behind. Pakistan has no place for us. We have already witnessed the plight of those Urdu-speaking Biharis who managed to flee to Pakistan. Till date they are neither accepted by the society nor the state. They are leading a miserable life,” he said.
According to Ilias, children born in camps want education and a better life, not Pakistan. Concentrated efforts to assimilate them into the Bangladeshi society, where they are born, are imperative. He believes that the gap and mistrust between Bihari refugees and Bengalis is decreasing. “They have started mingling with the world outside the camps. They are getting jobs and intermarriages are increasing. The camp walls are slowly collapsing.”
On the contrary, Harun Rashid, leader of Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC), does not see this as an option. SPGRC believes that the only solution to this crisis is repatriation to Pakistan.
Despite belonging to the generation that was born in the camps, Harun insists that sacrifices made by their fore-fathers for Pakistan cannot simply be shunned by this generation. “No other nation in the subcontinent has done this. We are destined to settle in Pakistan and one day we will.”
Speaking to Southasia from Dhaka, Harun rejected the impression that the Pakistani people and government are not interested in the repatriation of Bihari refugees. “It is just bad timing. Pakistan is stuck with its own problems. But it does not mean that they forget it.” He referred to his recent meeting with a leading Pakistani politician who promised that upon coming to power, his government will call back all refugees and settle them in Punjab.
When asked about the will of refugees to repatriate or not, Harun believes that even today if a survey is done, one will find that more than 60 percent refugees in the camps would want to settle in Pakistan. “They will prefer Pakistan by all means.” He, however, admits that refugees feel ignored both by their own people and by international forums. “All we want is a small piece of land in Pakistan even if it is barren. We will manage the rest. We just want our identity back.”
But who is responsible for this unending saga? Faiz Al Najdi, columnist and activist working on the plight of refugees, criticizes Pakistani govern-
Those who were born in 8x8 shanty camps refuse to be a part of this endless struggle and want to start a new life as citizens of Bangladesh. While the old generation dreams of Pakistani citizenship, the new generation argues, “We want to leave Pakistan behind.”
ment policy: “Pakistani policy has never remained straight. Lip service goes on even at the highest level of the government. Promises after promises are made yet virtually nothing is done about it.
Pakistani politicians remain consumed with refugees from Kashmir or Afghanistan. State visits usually comprise of Arab and European capitals but never include a visit to any refugee camp. Even personalities like Sattar Edhi, a champion of the underdogs worldwide, has traveled to war-wretched Lebanon but never once visited these camps. “The irony is that in Pakistan a simple humanitarian issue has got so politicized that its resolution is nowhere in sight,” Faiz says.
Though the world order is rapidly changing and every corner is witnessing political changes, time seems to have stopped in the refugee camps of Dhaka. However, ideologies are changing. Generations that once felt proud of their sacrifices are forced to defend themselves in front of their children who accuse them for their current plight.
While courts in Bangladesh grant citizenship to refugees, the society is reluctant to absorb them. On the other hand, while refugees are desperate to settle down in Pakistan, the Pakistani government is not interested in welcoming them. While government policies fluctuate and buy time, the emaciated camp generation dreams for a better future that will one day give them the identity and self-respect that they have been striving for since 1947. The writer is a Dubai-based journalist. She started her career in print and is now making documentaries. With about a decade’s experience in diverse spheres of journalism, her core interest is in issues related to South Asian migrant communities.
Neither here nor there.