The Rohingyas of Karachi

Pakistan’s Burmese immigrants have fled persecution, but they still have no nationality
Pakistan’s Burmese immigrants have fled persecution, but they still have no nationality

By: Naimat Khan

Hundreds of people gathered outside Karachi Press Club on June 5 to protest against what they called a genocide of Rohingya Muslims by Myanmar’s Buddhist regime. But only three of them were from the Ronhingya community of Karachi. There are nearly 0.8 million Rohingyas – generally known as the Burmese – living in various neighborhoods of Karachi.

One of them was Mufti Noorul Bashar, a scholar at Darul Uloom Karachi – a prime religious seminary of the country situated in Korangi industrial area. He even addressed a JUI-F demonstration against the violence against Rohingyas in Myanmar.

But other Burmese Muslims living in Karachi did not join in. When I spoke to them on the eve of the June 5 protest, most of the dwellers of Arakan vicinity in Karachi’s Korangi area told The Friday Times that they won’t participate. The reason, they said, was that they did not have national identity cards, and could therefore not move freely in the city.

There haven’t been any new Burmese refugees in Pakistan since the early 1990s, according to Noor Hussain Arakani, organizer of the Rohingya Solidarity Organization (RSO) in Pakistan. “But despite having lived here for decades, the Rohingyas are denied a Pakistani identity,” he says.

Mufti Noorul Bashar says the history of discrimination against Rohingyas goes back to 1942, six years before the independence of Burma, but life became difficult for Burma’s Muslim minority after their government decided to take back their nationality in 1988.

“We want nothing – no gas, no electricity and no food. We just want Pakistani nationality”

The Rohingya exodus to Pakistan began soon after President Ayub Khan – who had served in Burma in 1944 and 1945 – offered during his visit to the country in 1965 to settle them on Pakistani soil, local Burmese elders say. A large number of Rohingyas migrated to what was then West Pakistan, and many others settled in what is now Bangladesh.

There were two more mass emigrations after clashes in 1978 and 1992, but the Bangladeshi government turned their boats back from its side of the river Naaf.

Those who reached Karachi praise Zulfikar Ali Bhutto and Gen Ziaul Haq, who allowed them to leave their refugee camps and live in the city like its other residents. “But the successive governments did not allow us to obtain Pakistani nationality,” says Tajul Islam, a Rohingya fisherman from Machchar colony. “Those who fled to Turkey, Norway, Denmark and Canada, among other countries, have acquired the nationality of their host countries,” he says. “Gen Zia had announced to grant Pakistani nationality to Rohingyas, but he died before the promise could materialize.”

“By allowing Rohingyas to live outside of refugee camps, the government has deprived them of assistance from UNHCR, which grants proof of registration cards and relevant facilities to Afghans only,” says Rana Asif Habib, president of Initiator Human Development Foundation (IHDF), who has worked closely with the Burmese community for many years.

Although a small number of them live in Lahore, most of the Burmese reside in Karachi, Thatha and Badin – cities that connect them to their traditional fishing livelihoods. “The fishery industry of Pakistan depends on Burmese and Bangladeshis,” according to Shahid, who trades with local fishermen.

“Unlike other refugees, we are not a burden on Pakistan,” says Noor Hussain Arakani. “Three key industries – garments, carpet manufacturing and fisheries – depend heavily on cheap Burmese labor.”

Najma, who weaves carpets at her home in Arakanabad, gets Rs 2,000 (roughly $20) for a job that lasts more than a month. The carpets are sold at up to $1,000. Her husband Ramadan works at a textile mill.

The Burmese community of Karachi lives in more than 60 slums all over the city, key among which are the Burmi Colony in Korangi, Arakanabad, Machchar colony, Bilal colony, Ziaul Haq Colony and Godhra Camp. About five percent of them have Pakistani nationality. Since most of them do not have identity cards, they enter the sea illegally, compromising on their wages and their safety.

“We demand nothing – no gas, no electricity and no food. We just need Pakistani nationality, without which we can’t enter the sea legally, we can’t enroll our children in schools, and we are harassed,” say Noor Hussain Arakani.

Rohingyas are questioned by the FIA and police on a regular basis, says Rana Asif Habib, and some complain of harassment. FIA and police spokesmen dismiss the harassment allegations.

About 20 percent of Karachi’s street children are Rohingyas, according to Rana. Some are victims of child labor at fish harbors, while others become informers for the police or criminal gangs.

According to the sixth edition of the Sindh Counter Terrorism Department Redbook, among the province’s most dangerous terrorists is Qari Jameel Burmi, a Rohingya. Associated with Lashkar-e-Jhangvi, Burmi recruited for the outfit before he fled to Dubai, according to the Redbook. He has a Rs 500,000 bounty on his head.

Allama Hasan Turabi, a Shia scholar associated with religious political alliance Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, was killed at the gate of his house by a Burmese suicide attacker, Abdul Karim, on 14th July 2006. The teenaged Karim, whose confession video emerged later, was a resident of Musa Colony – a lower class locality mostly housing Bengali and Burmese immigrants.

Local elders say many Rohingya children are denied admissions to schools because they do not have B-Forms. Many have no option but to send their children to religious seminaries. The community is largely religiously conservative.

According to a news report published on June 8, a meeting chaired by Interior Minister Chaudhry Nisar Ali Khan in Islamabad discussed settling the Rohingyas of Myanmar in Karachi. Leaders in the past made the same offers, the Burmese of Karachi say, and they are grateful. “But the government should also pay heed to problems of those Rohingyas who already live in Karachi,” said Kareem, a Burmese fisherman.

The writer is a freelance journalist
Twitter: @NKMalazai

 This story appeared in the June 12, 2015 issue of The Friday Times Lahore 

Author: Naimat

Karachi based journalist, writing on national and international issues.

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