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From Camps to Slums: The Stranded Biharis’ Fate?

Orangi Town, Karachi

One of the many groups that migrated to what was then East Pakistan after the Partition of 1947 were ethnically Urdu-speaking Muslims from the north Indian province of Bihar. However, after the Bangladesh Liberation War of 1971, Biharis, seen as a symbol of Pakistani domination, were targeted and largely discriminated against. Camps were established with the intention of moving all Biharis to Pakistan. Biharis too maintained a pro-Pakistani stance and awaited repatriation. However, only around 175,000 of them were brought to Pakistan in different waves between 1972-1992. The rest continue to live in camps in Bangladesh that were supposed to be temporary, with limited opportunities and resources.

But what became of the ones repatriated? Where in Pakistan were they housed, and where are they now?

Most Biharis were relocated to Karachi and although the government attempted to settle some into other provinces as well, many ended up finding their way to Karachi anyway for the sake of family connections. After all, these family connections are an essential (and only) support network for them in a country where they are largely unprotected.

Biharis in Karachi live in slums like Orangi Town, Majeed Colony, etc. They have limited resources and facilities. The slums are overcrowded, sanitation is poor, and diseases like cholera and dengue are rampant thanks to Karachi's lax urban planning. Orangi Town, for example, is the home of many different refugees, including those who migrated to Pakistan in 1947, the Biharis who migrated post-1971, and Pashtuns who began to arrive in the 1980s, to name a few. It has been declared the largest slum in Asia, yet was excluded from all sorts of urban planning. Housing is difficult to acquire, and roughly eight to ten people share 2 bedroom homes. Ethnic tensions often arise between the different groups, and gang violence and crime are common. Women are generally more vulnerable, because sexual harassment and violence is also commonplace–in fact, between 2011-2014, 77% of Orangi Town’s female residents were victims of rape.

Like their counterparts in Bangladesh, Biharis in Pakistani slums also have limited access to education, and education itself is considered a secondary priority: the children (especially the boys) have to work to sustain the family. Perhaps because a much greater concern for Pakistani Biharis is citizenship itself. NADRA has made its policies for issuing CNICs more rigid, without considering that most refugee communities can not procure relevant documentation. Most Biharis lost documentation during migration, and NADRA asks for documents issued in the 1970s and early 1980s, including the repatriation certificate and ration card. However, Biharis claim that only those who arrived in 1974 under the repatriation agreement were issued repatriation certificates, but none were issued to those who arrived before or after.

No CNIC means living like an illegal migrant: no jobs, no state protection, no access to educational institutes. The state must own up to its refugees and make concessions to help Biharis and others like them, because otherwise, they’ll remain stateless persons with no hope or protection.

For further reading on the CNIC issue:

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