RAFIQ is a worried man these days. After 16 years in Karachi, where he works as a domestic servant, he is now struggling to put together some money to take his wife Aqlima and two-year-old son Arif back to Bangladesh, his homeland. The reason: the Bhutto government's recent decree that around two million immigrants must prove that they are legal residents or face deportation within six months. "All foreigners in Pakistan shall have to obtain a work permit or face expulsion within six months," says Interior Minister Naseerullah Babar, adding that more than 800 Bengalis have already been deported this year. Like thousands of other Bengalis, Rafiq is also being brutally hounded. "I cannot go out," says Rafiq. "If I get caught, what will happen to my wife and child. Who will feed them?"
Dhaka, which has vehemently denied Islamabad's allegations that many Bengalis are living illegally in Pakistan, has taken a tough stand against the 300-odd people allegedly holding Bangladeshi passports who arrived from Karachi early this month. While admitting that "according to our information, they have not been deported," Bangladesh's acting foreign secretary Mohiuddin Ahmed said they will face normal immigration laws and would not be accepted unless their claims are proved genuine.
The refugees, who were arrested on arrival but later released on bail, also maintained that they had come on their own fearing the fallout of Benazir's decree. Most do not have valid documents and those who do, have mostly fake passports. "If the Pakistani authorities forcibly send people here, we'll definitely take up the matter with Islamabad," said Ahmed.
But in Pakistan, the crackdown continues. The police are hauling up Bengalis if they are seen outside their houses. Some of them, like Rafiq, are planning to go back to Bangladesh. Others are holding out, fervently hoping for a change in the government's stand. But almost all Bengalis complain about the savage attitude of the police. "They beat us, take away our money and treat us like animals," says Shah Jalal, chairman of the Young Muslim Welfare Organisation which works for the interests of the Bengali community. "We have been out of a job for days. We will die of hunger and we can't feed the police anymore," says Khalid Bengali, a worker at the Karachi Fish Harbour, who along with a number of others observed a strike last month to protest against the authorities' decision.
The government's current swoop on illegal immigrants in Karachi has landed hundreds of Bengalis behind bars and employers have been warned against providing them with jobs.
Officials say there are more than 1.6 million Bengalis, 650,000 Afghans, 200,000 Burmese, 2,320 Iranians and Filipinos and hundreds of Nepalese, Sri Lankans and Indians living in Karachi. The officials believe they pose a threat to Karachi, a city already stricken by political violence that has claimed more than 1,650 lives this year. Many of these immigrants have fake Pakistani passports and identity cards.
The fact that Bengalis form the largest group—officials say over 800,000 immigrants have entered the country illegally between 1989 and 1993—seems to be the reason why the authorities are dealing with them first. "Anyone obtaining fake identity cards and passports will be deported immediately," said Babar. The feeling is that they have contributed to unemployment and an increase in the crime rate. The crackdown has been facilitated by the fact that the Bengalis lack political support and are an easy target. "Each time the law and order goes out of control in Karachi, the Bengali immigrants bear the brunt of the authorities' wrath," says Aneela Batool, a Karachi-based journalist.
The arduous journey most of these Bengalis undertake in coming to Pakistan is covered on foot and sometimes by train. They finally cross over by greasing the palms of check post officials through middlemen in Bangladesh, who charge Rs 3,000 to Rs 5,000 for bringing a person to the Pakistani border. The Pakistani agents in turn help them obtain Pakistani passports and identity cards. Usually, the picture of a client is pasted on to an otherwise genuine passport. Victims of ruthless exploitation by middlemen, police and employers, the immigrants then settle down to jobs in garment factories, carpet industries, fisheries, and restaurants. Many work as domestic servants.
In Karachi, there are several Bengali neighbourhoods—Zia-ul-Haq Colony, Chittagong Colony, Korangi 100 Quarters. It's like walking through a mini Bangladesh where the signboards are in Bengali and men wearing Bhashani caps, lungis and kurtas stroll past shops selling calendars and posters with pictures of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Khaleda Zia and opposition leader Hasina Wajid; or Bengali audio and video cassettes. There is also a Bengali newspaper, the Daily Qaumi Bandhan. Some of these ghettos have been around for a long time, housing Bengalis who settled here long before the 1971 war of liberation.
Trafficking in women is the most widely known crime committed by Bengalis and their Pakistani counterparts. Many Bengali men run prostitution dens in their houses, using not just Bengali women, but also children. In most cases, the women or children are actually sold. The trend is on the rise, with rates of child prostitutes varying from Rs 15,000 to Rs 45,000. Bulk purchase is also possible, a facility utilised by, among others, buyers from upcountry. According to a report published last year by the Human Rights Commission of Pakistan, about 40,000 Bengali children are victims of prostitution.
"It is a flourishing trade with no law to prevent or control it," says lawyer Zia Ahmad Awan. Karachi has the biggest flesh market, with prostitution dens in almost all the Bengali dominated localities. The buyers come from the interiors of Sindh, the Punjab and the North West Frontier Province. Hafiz, a Bengali whose wife Rani was sold to several men, is still looking for her. "I saw my Rani in Gulshan-e-Iqbal (a locality in Karachi) but the dallals (middlemen) did not let me speak to her, and beat me up severely. When I went to the police, they took all my money and threatened to put me behind bars," Hafiz says. The Bengalis, the police officials say, are also involved in other crimes. Bengali domestic cooks and servants, they say, are the most dangerous. "We have certain cases in which they murder the owner and run away with all the valuables," says a police official. Denying that his force accepted bribes, Karachi police chief Shoaib Suddle says about 700 Ben-galis had so far been arrested.
"We have no objection if any criminal elements are thrown out, but those who have not committed any crime have the right to live here," says Dhana Mian, who has been in the country for more than 25 years. Dhana Mian, along with around 75 Bengalis, lives in Sultan Compound in the city's western Asif Colony. They occupy one-room houses, or kholis, and say that they chose to stay back in Pakistan after the creation of Bangladesh. "We are 'basselors' (bachelors). All of us live here," says Ahmad Kabir, one of the bachelors—who are, incidentally, all married men, with wives and children in Bangladesh. "I was not well off and was unable to bring my wife to Pakistani," says Kabir. But when he could finally afford to bring her over, her visa was rejected by the Pakistani Embassy in Dhaka. Now, Kabir, who legally holds a Pakistani identity card and passport, cannot live in Bangladesh either. So the couple lead a miserable life offorced separation.
"The government does not allow our wives to come to Pakistan. They allow Indian wives to come, but not Bengalis," says Ahmad Jalal, an immigrant. For these men, the solution lies in awarding Pakistani citizenship to all Bengalis. "The government should accept it. This is an injustice to us," says Kabir.
The Pakistani government, however, has a completely different point of view. "We cannot take the burden of these illegal immigrants. They have created unemployment and after their deportation their places will be filled by locals. If they want to live here, they should register themselves and get work permits," says Babar, adding that "the government will soon form a policy regarding the issuing of work permits".
"We have become toys. We are neither accepted by the Pakistani government, nor by the Bangladeshis," says Dhan Mian, echoing the complaint of the Biharis of Bangladesh, who are being denied asylum by Pakistan. "Maybe the Pakistani government will not be able to deport such a large number of Bengalis,'' hopes Mohammad Salam, a Bengali who prefers to take his chances and stay on in Pakistan.
Salam still clings on to hope. But for others, like Rafiq and his wife Aqlima, there is only one destination—the unknown.