The Indian sub-continent’s partition in 1947 led to the creation of two countries, India and Pakistan. Pakistan had two wings, East and West, both of which were separated geographically by 1,200 miles of Indian territory between them. During the partition, a group of people from the Indian state of Bihar settled in East Pakistan to escape religious persecution. In 1971, civil war broke out between East and West Pakistan. East Pakistan seceded from West Pakistan and became the independent country of Bangladesh. Pakistan now consisted of only the western wing or West Pakistan. During the civil war, the Biharis or Urdu speaking people sided with Pakistan as they shared similar language, culture and political ideals. When Bangladesh was created, they were accommodated in temporary camps by the Red Cross so they could be later repatriated to Pakistan according to their wishes. Between 1973 and 1993, approximately 270,000 of the Biharis or Urdu speaking people were repatriated to Pakistan. The rest remained stranded in Bangladesh and hence were also referred to as, “stranded Pakistanis-” they are about 300,000 in number today. The remaining people could not be repatriated due to Pakistan’s resource constraints and internal fragmentation. They were also not granted a citizenship in Bangladesh.
The Urdu Speaking community has been living in the dilapidated camps for the past 44 years in desperate circumstances. They do not have recourse to basic amenities of living- clean drinking water, education or health care. Employment opportunities are nonexistent because of the discrimination and hostility they face due to their distinct identity and their past inclination toward Pakistan. Since they are ostracized from mainstream society, the lack of job opportunities relegates them to low paying work, earning them about a dollar a day. The huts they live in are makeshift structures made mostly of bamboo and dried leaves. These are tiny, approximately 8 ft. x 10 ft. and accommodate large families, serving also as their cooking, sleeping and living areas. The lack of sanitation and drainage facilities leads to a proliferation of water-borne diseases. Several hundred or sometimes thousand people share one community bathroom.
In 2008, the Bangladeshi High Court granted citizenship to all camp residents born after 1971 in response to a petition filed by the Urdu Speaking People’s Youth Movement (USPYM). The national identification cards they received as a result, gave them voting rights. However, these cards list their address as a temporary camp address. That constitutes a hindrance and prevents them from obtaining passports, government jobs and admission in public schools.
Forty-four years later, the future of these camp residents is still very uncertain and without hope. Their living conditions have worsened due to the population increase over the last few decades. More and more people being cramped in the already minuscule spaces are causing the already scant resources to be stretched thin, leading to greater socio-economic problems, disease and extreme poverty.