Stateless and helpless: The plight of ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan
Even though they are born in Pakistan, ethnic Bengalis are deprived of official recognition and citizenship.
Karachi, Pakistan – Kiran Jaffar and Kulsoom Yamir are teenage gymnasts in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi who are hoping to represent the country at international events.
But both know that, as things stand, they stand no chance of fulfilling that dream. They are stateless Bengalis in Pakistan. Without any official identification document, they can’t move forward.
Jaffar, 15, and fourteen-year-old Yamir live in Machar Colony, one of Karachi’s largest slums that is home to an estimated 700,000 people.
For these girls and their families, living there means living within the streams of densely packed houses, unfinished roads and poor sanitary conditions as a part of their daily life.
Approximately 65 percent of Machar Colony inhabitants are ethnic Bengalis and more than half of them have no citizenship or are stuck in a process of getting one, according to Tahera Hasan, lawyer and director of the charity Imkaan Welfare Organisation.
Yamir says she wants to “proceed in my life as a gymnast, perhaps even become a coach”.
Jaffar, with her vivid smile, shares the same aim: “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, due to which going to a proper school and even something basic as having a bank account is very difficult for us,” Yamir tells Al Jazeera.
Growing up in extreme poverty
The girls train at a learning and recreational centre called Khel (which means sport in Urdu) located in the slum.
The centre provides a space through educational learning and sports to 170 underprivileged children, including Jaffar and Yamir.
Inside, the appearance of Khel is a contrast to the grim reality of the slum in which it is located – colourful walls, upbeat music, floor mats and balance beams.
Stateless Bengali, as well as Pathan children, wearing yellow tights and shirts, aged five to 15, rigorously perform acrobatic moves with the help of their coaches.
Jaffar and Yamir seamlessly conquer handstands, swift backflips, cartwheels, front and back walkovers.
“It was a great challenge to train these children as gymnasts,” coach Muhammad Furqan, who has been training these children for the past five years, tells Al Jazeera.
“All of them have grown up in extreme poverty. They have never even seen a park in their life. Living under such hardships, they don’t know what compassion and gymnastics really was.”
He then gets busy assisting energetic young gymnasts to perform backflips and cartwheels.
There is laughter and some teasing if one loses balance and falls over.
Ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan – an estimated two million – are the most discriminated ethnic community.
Many of them have been living in the country even before the 1971 civil war which led to the creation of present-day Bangladesh which was previously East Pakistan.
Even though they are born in Pakistan, ethnic Bengalis are deprived of any official recognition and citizenship.
They can’t vote or have access to public health or government schools.
“They label us as aliens, refugees, foreign, depriving us of our rights,” Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, chairman of the Pakistan Bengali Action Committee, told Al Jazeera.
He has been advocating and fighting legal battles for the rights of the Bengali community since 1993.
“We are stuck in a constant struggle to get recognition in this country. Many people in my community don’t have ID cards and are stateless. Even though they have been living on this land even before the 1971 war. We are Bengalis, but we are Pakistani Bengalis.”
Initially, many Bengalis who decided to stay back in Pakistan after the war were given the first manual ID cards, which were issued in the country in 1973 and onwards.
But the main issue for the population started after the digitisation of ID cards and the establishment of the National Database and Registration Authority (NADRA) in 2000.
“People started facing problems after the digitisation process came into being,” said the lawyer Hasan.
“Documentation requirements changed and it made it difficult for people to fulfil them.”
Following digitisation, the establishment of the National Alien Registration Authority (NARA) the same year – to register immigrants and foreign residents – let Bengalis fall into the category of aliens, despite them residing in Pakistan for decades.
“The implementation of NARA systematically began to discriminate against the Bengali-speaking population,” added Hasan.
“There were Bengali people with Pakistani passports and ID cards who, later, were forcefully given NARA cards. The Bengali community was forcibly forced to take biometrics on NARA, automatically cancelling their citizenship.”
According to Siraj, “since 2002, their ID cards started getting blocked and they were considered foreign cases”.
In 2015, NARA merged with NADRA but the issue regarding ID cards for Bengali citizens has still not reached any solution.
Even though the most recent alien registry process, introduced by NADRA, aimed to facilitate the registration of non-natives and foreigners residing in Pakistan under the “alien” category, it is set to further discriminate against the rights of the Bengali community.
“The scheme completely ignores the right to have citizenship as granted under the birthright law. It violates that right,” said Hasan.
Siraj, meanwhile, reminded authorities that “many Bengalis have been living in Pakistan since before 1971, we have the right to vote and be legal citizens of the state”.
NADRA authorities did not respond to Al Jazeera’s request for comment.
PM Khan ‘did not fulfil his promise’
In 2018, prior to his election win, Imran Khan promised to grant Bengalis in Pakistan national ID cards and citizenship.
“There are [Bengali] children who are born in Pakistan, and even their ancestors are living in the country for decades and are not getting citizenship despite birthright laws. This is exploitation and the issue must be resolved,” Khan said at the time.
Three years on, the statements are yet to be realised.
“Khan promised that if his PTI party wins, Bengalis will get ID cards,” said Siraj.
“He said this in Governor House in Karachi and even in the National Assembly. But he did not fulfil his promise.”
Shireen Mazari, senior PTI politician and Pakistan’s Federal Minister for Human Rights, refused to comment when approached by Al Jazeera.
Shafqat Mehmood, another senior PTI leader, did not respond when contacted through email while current Interior Minister Sheikh Rasheed, through his assistant, said he has “no idea about the issue due to a lot of technical aspects”.
‘Children suffer the most’
Jaffar and Yamir, as well as their parents, were born in Pakistan. According to Pakistan’s Citizenship Act of 1951, any person born in Pakistan after the commencement of the Act has the right to claim citizenship.
None of Jaffar and Yamir’s family members has an ID card. 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 comes at the implementation level.”
As a result, children suffer the most. Without any legal document confirming citizenship, they can’t get admission to public schools.
Their prospects of attaining proper education, or anything similar, are stymied.
“The children of our community are denied all rights. The children can’t even go to state schools and get an education,” Siraj told Al Jazeera.
Hasan added that “as the life of these kids hits a deadlock, without hope and no progress, [children] get trapped into undertaking unwanted activities”.
As the life of these kids hits a deadlock, without hope and no progress, they get trapped into undertaking unwanted activities.
Since Jaffar and Yamir are not formally enrolled in a school, they get some tutoring at Khel, the centre, for two hours a day.
The pair is energetic, disciplined and determined. Their day starts early. They train strenuously as gymnasts until midday but also help their families with domestic chores before that. In the afternoon, they attend a local madrassa (religious school).
For Jaffar’s mother, Khalida, the bureaucracy of getting an ID card has been tiresome. She’s 40 and lost her parents when she was only five.
“I’ve been in Machar Colony since my childhood. My parents were also born here. Yet, I still can’t get an ID card,” says Khalida.
With meagre resources and a husband who works as a watchman, Jaffar’s mother prays for the brighter days for the children, hoping for the day her daughter becomes a successful gymnast.
“I don’t have a son, but I don’t care. My daughter is really good at gymnastics. We really support her and are always hoping for her success in the sport and her life for the future.”
The international community has taken no notice of the human rights violations taking place against the Bengali community in Pakistan, said social worker and lawyer Rana Asif Habib.
“Even international humanitarian organisations are failing to recognise this pressing issue,” Habib said.
“Pakistan is a signatory to the Universal Declaration of Human Rights, International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, and also the United Nation Convention on the Right of a Child. Yet, the government is not complying with these international instruments and the Bengalis here are still struggling.”
For Hasan, “it is vital to simplify the birth registration process, and make it a one-window operation to ensure that children who are born in Pakistan are not deprived of basic rights.”
For Jaffar, the hope is “a solution regarding the ID card”.
“My parents are always stressed because we can’t achieve anything without citizenship. Only after I become a citizen, I can proceed and play at the national level,” she says.
But as both girls balance on the beam together, their expressions while performing gymnastics do not betray their worries.
“Me and my family have the right to become citizens. But how can we proceed to that point without any ID?” asks Yamir.