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Bangladesh citizenship right divides Biharis

world Updated: May 20, 2008 20:19 IST
Azad Majumder
Azad Majumder
Reuters
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A court ruling to grant Bangladeshi citizenship to the children of stateless "Bihari" Muslims after 37 years in refugee camps has divided their community, with older Biharis still yearning to be allowed to settle in Pakistan.

Some 300,000 Urdu-speaking Biharis have lived in 66 squalid camps in Bangladesh since the former East Pakistan emerged as an independent country in 1971.

"We endured a lot of pain at the camps. Now it is going to be over, we are Bangladeshis and will have equal rights," said 27-year-old Fatema Begum.

Crammed into the camps with poor sanitation, power supply and no healthcare or education, the refugees had hoped for years that Pakistan would take them to their chosen homeland.

But frustrated over the long delay, the new generation Biharis below the age of 37, who have been born and grown up in the camps, recently made a legal move to win them Bangladeshi citizenship. The High Court granted them that right on Sunday.

"This is a historic achievement. We had been waiting for decades, while living an inhuman life in the camps," said Sadakat Khan, president of the Stranded Pakistanis Youth Rehabilitation Movement.

"Our people do not have access to government jobs, children cannot go to school. We cannot even open a bank account, let alone taking a loan," he told Reuters at a Dhaka refugee camp.

"Why we should go to Pakistan? We don't belong to Pakistan. We don't want to go to Pakistan."

Generations split

But many of the parents and grandparents of the young Biharis opposed the long-sought privilege, saying they wanted to remain Pakistanis and would wait indefinitely to go there.

"We have full respect for the court but we reject its ruling. Pakistan is our home and we want to exercise our citizen rights only after going there," said Shoukat Ali, leader of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee (SPGRC).

"Until then, we don't want to lose our refugee status in Bangladesh, which guarantees us a life in the camps with free food ration," said Shoukat, adding that SPGRC might challenge the High Court ruling in the Supreme Court.

Pakistan High Commissioner Alamgir Babar told reporters in Dhaka on Monday that Islamabad would consider the refugees' demand for repatriation with "humanitarian sympathy".

But, like his predecessors, he made no pledge to push the case or even suggest a tentative timeframe.

The Biharis, who migrated to former East Pakistan from India following the partition of the subcontinent in 1947, sided with the Pakistan army during Bangladesh's 1971 war of independence.

Bangladesh Home Ministry officials said about 140,000, or nearly half of the Biharis, who were born in Bangladesh and have expressed loyalty to the country, would be granted citizenship.

The rest would continue to live in the camps, run by the Bangladesh government and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees.

Pakistan has avoided the Bihari repatriation issue despite repeated requests by Dhaka for an early settlement.