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Bangla Biharis weary of wait to migrate to Pakistan

Abdus Samad was full of hope when he migrated to Pakistan in 1993. Last year, the Urdu speaking refugee returned to Bangladesh, bitter and disillusioned about life in a country he had always considered his own.

Most people in Bangladesh are Bengalis and speak a language of the same name. Samad belongs to a minority of Muslim Biharis who moved to East Pakistan from Bihar, when the Indian subcontinent was divided in 1947.

But in December 1971, East Pakistan broke away from Urdu speaking West Pakistan to become Bangladesh after a war that was won with the help of the Indian army.

Then several thousand people, who did not want to live in a Bengali majority nation, chose to migrate to Pakistan.

But because they had sided with the Pakistani army - which had unleashed a campaign of terror in the countryside from which millions of people fled to India - the Biharis were moved, until their repatriation to Pakistan, into heavily guarded camps, for their safety, by the Bangladesh government.

The Biharis have been waiting 25 years for the Pakistani government to arrange for their travel. The two countries have signed several agreements on the repatriation of these stateless people, but only a few hundred have managed to go to Pakistan.

Samad said he could not believe his luck when in 1993 he was told that he was among a batch of Biharis whose papers had been processed, so they could leave the country of their birth for their adopted home, Pakistan.

He gave up his job in a semi-government organisation where he was working as a low-paid employee, and left along with some of his close relatives for Karachi, Pakistan's largest city where the majority of residents are refugees from India and Bangladesh.

Samad said that he found a place on the outskirts of Karachi, and a job. But the money was not enough to live on. Neither did he feel welcome in the southern port city where simmering ethnic tensions among different migrant communities have repeatedly erupted in gun battles that have killed several thousands and brought Pakistan's economic life to a standstill.

His illusions about a better life in Pakistan shattered, he has come back to Bangladesh, and is desperately hunting for some work. Life is again full of uncertainties.

It is estimated that there are at least 400,000 Biharis living in some 66 refugees camps across Bangladesh. There are twice that number in 1971, but many opted to make Bangladesh their home and became citizens.

The Mohammadpur Camp in Dhaka is the largest camp for Biharis in Bangladesh. Some 25,000 people are crowded into single rooms, built to accommodate three. The government, which tries to provide basic facilities like food, water and electricity, has said it cannot improve the condition of the camp where epidemics of diarrhoea and dysentery have claimed many lives.

Even the police does not bother to crack down on the unauthorised distillers of local liquor, the slaughter houses and the brothels that have mushroomed.

Because they are stateless, the Biharis can find work only as daily wage labour. The men do backbreaking jobs as cycle-rickshaw drivers, peddlers and brick breakers, while the women slog in the city's garment factories or as domestics.

Over the years, groups representing the Biharis have staged demonstrations, gone on hunger strikes and organised rallies to press for repatriation to Pakistan, but with little result.

In the first four years after Bangladesh's independence, some 175,000 Biharis were repatriated. The process slowed down after that: Between 1976 and 1982, some 19,000 people went to Pakistan.

Under the previous government which was in power from 1991 to 1996, only 325 Biharis were repatriated.

This was mainly because ex-prime minister Khaleda Zia's counterpart in Pakistan, Benazir Bhutto, was not very keen to allow the Biharis into her country, describing them on one occasion as ''disturbing elements''. Instead Bhutto was keen to pass on responsibility to the Muslim ummah or brotherhood.

Last year in August, Dhaka again raised the issue of repatriation during the visit of the then Pakistan foreign secretary Nazmuddin Shikh, but without any luck.

The Bangladesh government says the Biharis are a strain on its precarious finances, costing the government some $250,000 every month.

Meanwhile, some stateless Biharis are beginning to weary of the endless wait. Last year in November, shortly after a new government was installed in Dhaka, a group of Biharis issued an appeal to Prime Minister Sheikh Hasina Wajed that they be granted citizenship, as they did not want to go back to Pakistan.

Iqbal Ahmed Siddiqui, president of the committee for the rehabilitation of non-Bengalis in Bangladesh, told a press conference that some of his people were keen to stay in Bangladesh.

But this could be tricky as many people in Bangladesh have not forgiven the Biharis for supporting Pakistan during the war. A leader of the ruling Awami League party, who asked not to be identified, said the Biharis have ''not begun to adjust themselves to the culture and ways of Bengalis''.


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