The Bihari community in Bangladesh has come a long way from filthy tents to voting rights, but they continue to battle social stigma.
The Biharis say the planes that were supposed to take them to Pakistan never arrived and the 300,000-minority community was stranded in one-room houses as stateless refugees.
The Urdu-speaking Biharis are descendants of Muslim refugees who fled from India after the partition of 1947, fearing communal riots.
During the 1971 Bangladesh’s Liberation War, some factions supported West Pakistan resulting in conflict and forceful deportation of thousands. But the rest remained and moved into refugee camps and continue to be looked down upon.
In 2008, about 150,000 Biharis, who were minors at the time of the liberation war of 1971 or born after were given citizenship rights. They were able to vote for the first time.
Ahmed Ilias of Al-Falah Bangladesh, campaigning for the rights of the community says authorities will not give passports to Bihari youth if their address is inside the refugee camp. “There is no economic rehabilitation and our youth cannot work overseas, they are trapped,” he says.
About 94 percent of the Biharis are illiterate, according to the Refugee and Migratory Movements Research Unit, while the national average is 46 percent.
Walking down the narrow lanes means jumping over open drains, garbage, mud and slush. The camps look more like self-sufficient towns, mud-brick houses, dotted with cottage industries, shops and schools. Unable to get jobs, many work as day labourers in the city; the camps are well known for embroidery work, dyeing, thread making, weaving of Banarasi saris.
“We demand compensation, so we can start businesses; free education till high school and reservation or quotas for our families,” says Muhammad Nadim, who lives in Rahmat Camp in Dhaka.