Will Pakistan ever consider them its own?
Five Bengali girls from Karachi’s Machhar Colony won the first prize in the International Cheerleading Festival in Russia. They were only able to participate because the coronavirus shut down global travel.
These girls are stateless – no country recognizes them as its citizens, and as such they have no identity. They neither have identity cards, nor passports. Without these documents, they cannot travel to another country and return home.
Prior to 2020, a competition like this would be something they might hear about vaguely. But this year, the festival was held online and collected video submissions. The Imkaan Welfare Organization team entered the competition and won in the junior free cheer category.
These young girls are what dreams are made of. We need #equalopportunities without being deprived due to #statelessness and #lackofidentity @murtazawahab1 @BBhuttoZardari @AseefaBZ pic.twitter.com/bkJhqeQgDs— Tahera Hasan (@taherahasan) December 18, 2020
IWO Director Tahera Hasan is proud of the efforts these young girls and her team have made. Yet, she says, this is a state that will not even recognize them as its citizens. “Because they don’t have an identity or a CNIC, they have no access to education, jobs, healthcare, even a bank account,” she told SAMAA Life & Style. She would tell this to anyone, hoping that something would change.
Pakistan’s laws provide the right to citizenship to any Bengali present in the country from 1971 to 1978, or anyone who born here.
“Many Bengalis have manual identity cards, but things changed when NADRA began computerizing its database,” Hasan said.
“The National Alien Registration System was created to identify and facilitate such communities to receive their rights under the law, but instead it has been used as a tool for discrimination.
“It all comes down to NADRA’s officers,” she said. “Frontline workers discriminate due to which people can’t process their applications, or [they] put them in F category.”
Machhar Colony, Karachi’s largest and most densely-populated informal settlement, occupies just four square kilometers of land. Officially, it is home to 150,000 people while unofficial counts put the number at 700,000. By comparison, Clifton takes up about twice the space and is inhabited by 225,000 people. The residents of Machhar Colony are by and large Bengali-speaking, who share space with Afghan, Kutchi, Pashtun, Punjabi, Rohingya and Sindhi communities. The name of the colony is derived from “Machhera (fisherman)”, since most of its residents are fishermen, fish and shrimp cleaners and labourers in the ship-breaking industry.
The IWO was set up in this neglected corner in 2014. It has grown over time to include a solid waste management project, a learning and recreation center for children, a maternity home, a community healthcare center, and the original legal aid clinic that focuses on issues relating to a lack of identity. The learning and recreation center was an organic development, the director says.
“Some of our team members started teaching kids gymnastics and table tennis,” she said. “Later, their parents asked us to educate their sons and daughters too, since they couldn’t go anywhere else.”
It was from this center that a team was formed to participate in the Russian festival, the team that brought honour home to a country that doesn’t recognise their existence.