There is a tiny slum by the name of Arakan Abad in Karachi’s Korangi district. The faint smell of rotting fish that lingers around the low-income neighbourhood clues you in to what its denizens do for a living.
Every morning, the young lot of Arakan Abad goes out far away from shore into the deep waters of the Arabian Sea. Wrestling with the tides, they catch what sustains a profitable industry for both Karachi and the rest of the country.
One would think an economy they help nourish would provide them the means and the opportunity to meet their most basic needs. But their lean, sunburnt bodies and poverty-stricken lifestyle reflects the nation’s apathy towards their labour. The fishermen of Arakan Abad have no credentials to prove that they are the citizens of Pakistan. And amid the lingering threat of the novel coronavirus, that means their most vulnerable have no recourse to get vaccinated.
“Yes, I want to be vaccinated but I don’t have a National Identity Card (NIC),” says 65-year-old Shona Ali. “Whenever I pay a visit to the hospital for vaccination, they refuse me. There are a large number of people [in our community] who have contracted Covid-19 but we are helpless and they cannot get vaccinated,” he lamented.
Ali has been living in Pakistan since he was a young child, but in the eyes of the state, he is still Bengali. Growing up, catching fish was the only means he had to earn a living but his advanced age makes going into deep waters an option no longer.
Ali, however, is not alone in being deprived of the most basic rights. There are many others in Pakistan of Bengali, Burmese and Afghan descent who, despite being born and brought up in Pakistan, have not yet been issued NICs by the state.
Under the Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951, people born in Pakistan are automatically eligible for citizenship. However, prejudice against Bengalis and suspicion that they are illegal migrants means that they are often refused the identity documents.
The Pakistani Government has provided Covid-19 vaccination free of cost to its citizens who have their identity cards and are aged 40 years and above. But there are estimated to be around 2.5 million people in Pakistan of Bengali, Burmese and Afghan descent and a significant number of them continue to be denied the right to register as citizens. With the pandemic in full swing, this means these marginalised communities are especially vulnerable to Covid-19 as they live without any safety net from the government.
Initially these communities lived in different parts of the country but the biggest city of Pakistan Karachi is now the residence for most of them. Most Bengalis reside in Arakan Abad, Bengali Para, and Ittehad Town areas of Korangi and Machhar Colony of Kemari area. The Afghans, on the other hand, have been living in Afghan Basti near Sohrab goth.
The Bengali and Burmese immigrants living in Pakistan alone number around one million, according to data. Many of them settled decades ago after either they or their parents or grandparents migrated from the region of Arakan in Myanmar via then East Pakistan. They initially settled in different parts of the city but with the passage of time they started to cluster around the Korangi area located adjacent to the area of Ibrahim Haidery.
Arakan is a coastal geographic region in lower Burma comprising of a long narrow strip of land along the eastern seaboard of the Bay of Bengal. For those unaware, the region is where Myanmar’s persecuted Muslim Rohingya ethnic group mostly resides. While Pakistan’s government and people have vociferously raised their voice against the plight of Rohingya in Myanmar, in a tragic twist of irony, their descendents living in our own country seem to have been long forgotten by both.
Crisis upon crisis
Lack of access to vaccines is just one of contributing factor to the larger ordeal of the people of Arakan Abad. Shamul Alam, another resident of the slum, was a constable in Sindh Police until he retired from the service. But despite his years on the force, the government recently declared his family stateless.
Earlier he used to live in Teen Hatti area, Lalukhait and served the country by dedicating his life to fighting crime. Since retiring from the police department, he began working as a fisherman. More recently, he has been diagnosed with diabetes and is no longer able to go into the sea and catch fish.
“My daughters are unmarried, since they do not have ID cards,” he said. Alam's wife Mumtaz Begam also faces many issues she does not have an ID card. “My wife’s ID card was blocked in 2015 and since then NADRA hasn't issued her an ID card again. For this reason, our sons and daughters are facing the same issue, and neither me nor my wife Mumtaz Begum can get vaccinated for Covid-19,” Alam shared.
Mumtaz is above the age of 60 years and would have been vaccinated months ago had it not been for the lack of an ID card. According to Alam, NADRA officials want to be bribed in exchange for the documents. Three of Alam and Mumtaz’s children were issued NIC cards before she was denied hers. The rest of their children have been denied a card since 2015 as well.
Alam complained that the area where he lives in lacks the basic necessities of life including water and electricity. “Even Karachi electricity calls us criminals, as the whole area is provided electricity through the Kunda system (illegal connections),” he says, adding, “Lack of identity makes the lives of the people of our community even worse.”
Alam pointed out the broken, inundated streets of Arakan Abad. “The area is broken like our heart,” he said. “Everybody wants an ID card, even for instalment of utilities.”
Before the partition, his family migrated from India as they wanted to be a part of Pakistan. Alam’s parents spoke Burmese but with the passage of time, Alam forgot the language and now is Bengali speaking. Since members of both communities have melded together in these southern parts of the country, most Burmese people speak Bengali.
While dowry, is considered one of the main elements in planning of a girl’s marriage, as far as Burmese young girls are concerned, an NIC is one of the main reasons causing a delay in their marriages. Many girls belonging to the Burmese or Bengali communities, who do not have NIC cards, face issues with their marriage proposal. For prospective husbands and their families, an NIC is on the top of the list of demands within the community. Since four of Alam’s daughters do not have NIC cards, they are still unmarried.
Alam’s daughters among his family are not the only one who are facing problems in lieu of ID cards. His sons in fact, are also facing income issues.
Most of the citizens of Arakan Abad have been adopting the profession of fishery. However, the lack of ID cards has added a new dimension to their struggles and problems. NICs have now been made compulsory for going to fish in the sea. Due to this restriction many of the residents are unemployed now.
Alam’s eldest son Mohammad Zahid, who is 26 years old, is a fisherman but cannot go fishing in the sea. “The coast guard has sent me back for attempting to fish. How can we go fishing after the ban for those who do not have NIC cards,” says Zahid. He is now running rickshaw to make ends meet.
Illiteracy and extremism
Mohammad Zahid's son has three kids: Zulekha, aged 5, Ehtasham aged 3 and Fareeha, aged one. Admission in schools should be the right of every child. But unfortunately stateless children are not allowed to get admission in schools because their parents are not registered citizens in Pakistan.
One thing is sure that without education youth can be led astray and more prone towards criminal activities. The religious seminaries established in the areas have been raking benefits from the failure of the state.
“Education is the right of every child but unfortunately my communities have been deprived of these basic rights of getting education,” he said, adding that “Now we have only the option to send my children to the seminary.”
Young Zulekha, with her head covered with a scarf, returned from the seminary and hugged her father. Zulekha can only learn recitation of the Quran at the seminary.
“Look at her!” he lamented, adding, “She wanted to be educated but the state does not allow her.”
Zahid wanted his kids to get admission in schools, he adds that but without birth records and without his possessing an ID and my c card himself, his children continue to suffer
The Afghans of Sohrab Goth
A large number of Afghan refugees live in Afghan basti near Sohrab goth area of Karachi.
According to UNHCR official for Pakistan Qaiser Khan, there are 1.4 million of Afghan refugees living in Pakistan and most of them are not registered.
Khan further added that the total population of Afghan refugees in Pakistan is 1.4 million and most of them have registration cards however, there are many Afghan community members who are deprived of identity cards.
Due to lack of ID cards, these Afghan people are forced to do small menial tasks to earn money such as scavenging and running carts and are thus, deprived the opportunity to do better for themselves and their families.
Director General of Sindh Health Department Dr Irshad Memon when contacted accepted that the government does now allow to vaccinate those who have no credentials. While talking to The Express Tribune, DG Health Sindh said that the Sindh government wants to vaccinate the entire population but we have to follow the federal government policy in this regard.
Memon further said that they will wait till the announcement of National Command Operation Center (NCOC) policy regarding stateless immigrants. “However, the Sindh health department wants to vaccinate every single person within the province,” he adds. This statement is a curious one as it has been well-documented that the Sindh government hasn’t always strictly followed NCOC guidelines for inoculation within the province.
Pakistan is the country, whose economy is significantly dependent on its overseas citizens, in the form of remittance. However, they cannot handle the issue of stateless citizens in its own soil.
Recent data collected from the State Bank of Pakistan shows that the Pakistanis living outside the country have sent home over $ 2 billion for the tenth consecutive month in March.
Bringing this largely ignored segment of the population of Pakistan could only benefit the country as they could be added to the tax bracket and only significantly improve awareness, education and health related crisis for generations to come. The pandemic, which has highlighted a long-ignored issue, has also created an urgency that can be looked at as opportunity for the government to right this wrong. Creating and implementing a policy for issuance of ID cards of these stateless citizens will not only mean the difference between life and death for these people but also permanently change their lives and their off springs lives.