This year marks 40 years of independence for Bangladesh. Even now, more than 100,000 refugees from the state of Bihar continue to languish in squalid camps.
Many generations live under one roof
Commonly known as Biharis, these were people who decided to leave India after the partition in 1947 and join Pakistan. But the planes that were supposed to take the Biharis to Pakistan never arrived and the minority community of 300,000 was stranded in one-room houses as stateless refugees. Some 150,000 Biharis, who were minors at the time of the War of Independence in 1971, or were born a year after the war were granted citizenship rights in 2008.
Many Bihari children do not have an education
About 80 percent of the Biharis were born in Bangladesh and consider themselves Bangladeshis, like Muhammad Nadim, who was born in Dhaka two years before the war. " We were Muslims and left India to come to another Muslim country. But that India is not ours anymore. Pakistan is also not ours. Bangladesh is ours but we have no rights here. The Red Cross has been taking care of us for so long."
The Urdu-speaking Biharis are descendants of Muslim refugees who fled from India after the partition of 1947, fearing communal riots. During Bangladesh’s Liberation War in 1971, some factions supported West Pakistan, resulting in conflict and forceful deportation of thousands. But the rest remained and moved into refugee camps.
According to Nadim, the older generation still considers Pakistan to be their country. "Inside the camps we speak in Hindi but outside we speak in Bangla. We cannot abandon our mother tongue. We will remain Urdu-speaking Bangladeshis."
The Urdu-speaking Biharis are descendants of Muslim refugees
Complaints and demands
Nadim shows a stack of letters that the community has written to the Prime Minister, which include complaints and demands. "First, we need somewhere to live comfortably with our families. Second, the government needs to give us compensation so we can start our businesses. Third, our children should be given free education until high school. Fourth, there should be reservations or quotas for our families."
Inside the congested camps, less than 5 percent of the population has formal education because they had no access to public education until the year 2000. Khairun Nisha, who is over 100 years old, lives with her nine-member family, spread over three generations, in one room. "I have been living here since the day Bangladesh was founded. There is so much suffering here. Broken toilets, water logging, damp houses, unsafe drinking water. Everyday we have to deal with it."
Families keep goats and poultry to earn some extra income
Nisha’s daughter in-law, Saeda, points to the shed in front of their windowless one-room house, where she cooks and stores water and food. A bed and a television set is all that the family owns. During the day the bed is used for weaving saris with sequins and gold thread, a common sight in most Bihari houses. She says, "Some 1200 families use 12 toilets, which are so far away. We leave in the morning at 8; we stand in the queue and return only by 9 or 10. People often end up quarrelling. Almost three generations have suffered this sort of life."
Most Biharis consider themselves Bangladeshis and would like to stay in Bangladesh. They only hope that their living conditions will improve.
Author: Bijoyeta Das
Editor: Sarah Berning