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.

Southasia - - Refugee crisis - By Amna Eht­e­sham Khaishgi

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.

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