Stephan Uttom and Rock Rozario, Dhaka
Updated: August 18, 2017 11:21 AM GMT
Bihari Muslims walk down a garbage littered alley at Geneva camp in Dhaka on June 20. (ucanews.com photo)
More than four decades after Bangladesh split from Pakistan to become an independent nation, tens of thousands of Urdu-speaking Muslims remain stranded in inhumane refugee camps.
Popularly called 'stranded Pakistanis' or 'Biharis,' some 300,000 people continue to live in some 70 secluded, overcrowded and rundown camps across Bangladesh. They have little access to education, employment or health services.
Geneva camp in the Mohammadpur area of the capital Dhaka hosts the largest camp with more than 30,000 residents living in ghetto-like conditions.
Some 5,500 families live in 8-foot by 8-foot rooms. People and cattle exist side by side, with numbers increasing markedly since 1971.
"When it rains, water tickles down and we can't sleep. Without treatment one of my sons died at the age of 30 and maybe I will face the same fate," Rubina, 70, told ucanews.com.
She added that people wanted to live like human beings, rather than animals.
A child is seen in an alley inside Geneva camp for Bihari refuges in Dhaka on June 20. (ucanews.com photo)
Muhammad Ismail, 65, a former shoemaker, described life as an endless misery. People were thankful to the government for allowing them to stay, but conditions have been intolerable, he said. "We have 10 families in the space of one house and we have almost no opportunity to live on our own," Ismail said.
There is no government or non-government aid programs for the Bihari refugees, due at least in part to fears of a social and political backlash.
Only six camps, including Geneva, have schools for Bihari children.
Theophil Nokrek, in-charge of the Bangladesh Catholic bishops' Desk for Migrants and Itinerant People, warned that an 'humanitarian crisis' is still unfolding
"It is so painful to see that these people are neither allowed to go to Pakistan nor to live in Bangladesh happily," he said, adding that solutions need to be urgently found.
Nokrek said church groups had not given assistance to refugees for various reasons.
"The church has limitations in funds and resources," Nokrek said.
"It can't properly help Christian indigenous peoples, so issues like refugees — Rohingyas or Biharis — remain out of reach," he said.
"Even if the government and society continue to be apathetic to their plight, personally I think the church needs to do something for them."
Most Biharis have lost any hope of repatriation to Pakistan or have no wish to go there.
Shoukat Ali, secretary of Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, told ucanews.com that, in 1971, those put into the camps were told they would be repatriated within three years. But 46 years had passed without that happening.
"We don't call ourselves Biharis anymore, but Bengalis, and we don't want to move to Pakistan as we prefer rehabilitation in Bangladesh," he said.
In 1992, there were 300,000 Bihari refugees, however, the current estimate is 450,000. Ali complained that Biharis face abuse, violence and eviction threats.
There had even been evictions during the Muslim holy month of Ramadan.
In 2014, nine refugees died due to an arson attack in a Dhaka camp and another person was shot dead by police after Biharis resorted to street protests.
The Biharis are a Muslim minority from the Hindu-majority Indian states of Bihar and Uttar Pradesh, who migrated to then East Pakistan following deadly Hindu-Muslim sectarian riots in 1946 and the partition of British India into Hindu-majority India and Muslim-majority east and west Pakistan in 1947.
During Pakistani rule, local Bengalis in East Pakistan faced socio-economic, cultural and political discrimination from dominant West Pakistani ruling elites. This fueled their anger against the Urdu-speaking community.
Bengali fury against them intensified during the 1971 war when some Biharis sided with the Pakistan army and allegedly committed war crimes. In retaliation, Bengalis killed many Biharis.
Watch this ucanews.com video about the Bihari Muslims of Geneva camp in Dhaka.
After Bangladeshi independence, the vanquished army retreated to West Pakistan, deserting the Biharis.
Up to 1973, the Pakistani government, with assistance from Saudi Arabia and the United Nations, repatriated 170,000 Biharis. However, Pakistan stopped the program citing a shortage of funds and anti-repatriation protests at home.
In 2003, the Bangladesh High Court granted citizenship and voting rights to 10 Biharis. And, in 2008, the court ruled that Biharis who were minors during the 1971 war could be given citizenship and voting rights.
However, many Biharis refused to take up citizenship without first being assured of their basic human needs.
"Some people got citizenship but not rights, so it's nothing but increasing the vote bank," Ali said.
"We want to be treated like equal human beings and equal citizens in this country."