Indigenous people attend a candlelit vigil in Dhaka, Bangladesh, on Aug. 8, hours before International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples. (Photo by Stephan Uttom/ucanews.com)
As Bangladesh marked International Day of the World's Indigenous Peoples on Aug. 9, rights activists and church officials said discrimination and persecution are leading to the migration of ethnic minorities.
Indigenous groups observed the day with the theme "Indigenous Peoples: Migration and Movement" with seminars, rallies and cultural displays to highlight the plight of their communities.
"Indigenous peoples are victims of abuses and discrimination from the state and the majority community, while state measures for the recognition and realization of rights of indigenous communities are absent," said Theophil Nokrek, secretary of the Catholic bishops' Justice and Peace Commission.
"They are considered inferior to the majority group, often looked down upon and denied justice when faced with violence. Discrimination and persecution spark forced external and international migration of indigenous peoples. While many resort to migration, many live on the same land like outcasts after losing it to land grabbers."
Nokrek, a Catholic from the Garo ethnic group, said the church has been supporting indigenous peoples by obtaining land documents and providing legal support for court cases.
"What the church and some rights groups are doing is not enough. Bangladesh as a whole needs to be indigenous-friendly to help them live as equal citizens," he said.
Indigenous rights groups say that more than 10,000 indigenous peoples have migrated to various countries, mostly India, since Bangladesh declared independence in 1971.
In Chittagong Hill Tracts, a predominantly indigenous and forested region, about 500 families have migrated to countries including India and Myanmar due to persecution by Bengali Muslim settlers, according to Pollob Chakma, director of the Kapaeng Foundation, a Dhaka-based indigenous rights body.
Yasin Ali, a lawmaker from the Workers Party of Bangladesh, said discrimination and persecution would not stop without a special law for indigenous peoples.
"Together with indigenous communities, Bengali people fought in 1971 to establish a state free of discrimination. Sadly, persecution and migration of ethnic minorities show we have failed to do so. We are working hard to press the government for a special law for indigenous groups," he said.
The United Nations says there are about 370 million ethnic indigenous peoples in the world, accounting for less than 5 percent of the global population but 15 percent of the world's poor. They speak an overwhelming majority of the world's estimated 7,000 languages and represent 5,000 cultures.
Bangladesh's government recognizes 25 ethnic minorities. Indigenous leaders say there are at least 45 ethnic groups, while independent researchers believe there are about 90.
There are an estimated three million ethnic-minority people in Muslim-majority Bangladesh's population of 160 million. Most indigenous peoples are non-Muslims — Buddhists, Hindus and Christians. About of half of the country's estimated 600,000 Christians hail from ethnic-minority communities.
Despite appeal from indigenous communities for official recognition as "indigenous groups," Bangladesh government identified them as "small ethnic groups" in a constitutional amendment in 2010.
Bangladesh is a signatory of the International Labor Organization's Convention on Indigenous and Tribal Populations but has not ratified the Convention of Biological Diversity that contains more detailed protective measures for indigenous peoples.
Watch raw video footage of the event: