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SEPTEMBER 25, 2000 VOL. 156 NO. 12


Piers Benatar.
Bangladeshi refugees in a women's shelter in Karachi.

You Can't Get There From Here
Bengali immigrants in Pakistan now wish they'd never left Bangladesh
By HANNAH BLOCH Islamabad

When Almas Bahar Begum came to Pakistan 22 years ago, she was looking for a better life than the one she left behind in Bangladesh. She eventually raised seven children in Pakistan, but now, sitting on the floor of her family's two-room, tin-roofed house in a Karachi slum, she says it would have been better if she had never come. Tragedy struck last year when Almas Bahar's son Jaffar Ali, a fisherman, died after being jailed when he refused to pay a bribe to the police. Since his death, she has looked after Jaffar Ali's five children. "There is no future for them here," says the gray-haired grandmother. "The only solution is that I return to Bangladesh."

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But that may be impossible. In the years immediately following the 1971 civil war that created Bangladesh from what was formerly East Pakistan, hundreds of thousands of Bengalis, most of them illiterate laborers, migrated to Pakistan. Until several years ago, there was ample incentive: the Pakistani economy was doing relatively well while Bangladesh was an economic basket case. Now that Pakistan has fallen on hard times and Bangladesh is enjoying the fruits of liberalization and political stability, some refugees are trying to return. But overcrowded Bangladesh (pop. 130 million) is reluctant to take them. "The Bangladeshi government is not willing to accept people who say, 'I am Bangladeshi,'" complains Zia Ahmad Awan, a human rights lawyer in Karachi. "This is ridiculous. They want to deny this whole issue."

Perhaps 2 million Bengalis live in Pakistan illegally. At least 1 million reside in Karachi alone, spread out over 82 neighborhoods. They have become a vital part of the city's melting pot, working in the fishing and carpet-weaving industries and as domestic servants. But their illegal status means they face frequent police harassment, blackmail and sexual abuse—all without recourse, as they fear being arrested as aliens. "It is the hobby of police to arrest Bangladeshis," says Syed Muhammad Kazmi, a Karachi social worker. "When the fishermen come home, police know they have money and raid their houses. They take the women and children to extort money."

Female immigrants face the greatest dangers. Hundreds of Bengali women have been forced into prostitution in Pakistan, and some have even been sold into slavery. Since the early 1990s, agents have brought women to Pakistan either by force or with promises of marriage and work. Once in Pakistan, "they are like chattel being sold," says Awan. Although such trafficking has declined in recent years due to stricter border controls, many Bengali women remain in Pakistan against their will. Consider the case of Anwari Begum, who as a teenager in Dhaka was drugged and brought to Pakistan's Punjab province 10 years ago. After a six-month journey across India, the girl was put up for auction with 50 other Bengali women. All but four were sold. Her husband purchased Anwari for $1,800, and after an on-the-spot marriage ceremony and a payoff to the police, her new life began. She ran away a year ago, after her husband beat her. Now living in a Karachi women's shelter with her two children, Anwari, 28, wants to go home to Bangladesh. But she cannot afford the $210 for a one-way ticket to Dhaka. Even if she could, she has no passport, and obtaining a travel permit would require the help of a middleman who would charge an additional $150.

Dhaka says it will accept anyone who can prove Bangladeshi citizenship. But it considers many Bengalis who emigrated and made lives for themselves across the border to be Pakistani. "My family doesn't know where I am," Anwari says in strongly accented Urdu. "I'm stuck here, I can't go back."

A thousand kilometers away, another immigrant group is desperate to move the other way, to get out of Bangladesh and into Pakistan. The Biharis, Urdu-speaking Indians who migrated in 1947 to East Pakistan from the Indian state of Bihar, favored the wrong side during the the 1971 war. To protect them from retaliation after the fighting, authorities herded more than 300,000 into refugee camps. About 100,000 managed to make it to Pakistan illegally, but more than 200,000 remain in the camps today—a nuisance to Bangladesh and an embarrassment to Pakistan, which has repatriated only a few thousand, citing lack of funds. At a press conference in New York last week, Pakistan's military leader, General Pervez Musharraf, dismissed the idea of repatriating more: "I do not want to add to our difficulties. We have enough of them as it is." Islamabad fears the Biharis' presence would increase ethnic tensions, especially in troubled Sindh province, which already has a volatile ethnic mix. For now, the Biharis will stay put—just like most of the Bengalis stuck in Pakistan.

With reporting by Ghulam Hasnain/Karachi and Farid Hossain/Dhaka

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