Rohingya Muslims who fled Burma decades ago did not escape persecution
KARACHI, PAKISTAN // A young Shams ul Azam and his family had never seen the ocean before coming to Karachi as refugees from Burma in 1978. Now, the sea is all they know.
"We became fishermen because we settled near the port, but I think of my village when I see agricultural land here, and my heart weeps," he said. "We tell our children about what life was like there, and they ask when will we go back … but I don't have the answers."
Mr ul Azam is one of the thousands of stateless Burmese Muslims known as Rohingya who have fled persecution in Burma over the last 35 years for the relative peace of Karachi, making it one of the largest Rohingya population centres outside of Myanmar, as Burma is now called.
This summer, Buddhist mobs began burning Rohingya villages and the president of Myanmar called for their expulsion from the country. The violence became a cause célèbre in the Muslim world, and Pakistanis vented their outrage on Twitter and Facebook; Islamist parties rallied thousands and called on the government to intervene.
But Pakistan's own Rohingya, who are denied the basic rights of citizenship, face many of the same hardships as their relations in Myanmar, and are one of Karachi's poorest and most vulnerable communities.
"This is part and parcel of what the Rohingya experience has been in many countries," said Phil Robertson, a Bangkok-based researcher with Human Rights Watch. "It's what Burma's continued denial of citizenship to the Rohingya has resulted in."
Mr ul Azam lives in one of Karachi's many sprawling informal developments, this one called Arakanabad, named after the Arakan (now Rakhine) province of Myanmar where the Rohingya have lived for hundreds of years. Karachi is home to more than 200,000 Rohingyas, according to officials at the National Alien Registration Authority (Nara).
The Rohingya have been the victim of systematic discrimination and violence that has festered since Burma's independence from Britain in 1948, according to an academic study published by by the Pakistan Institute of International Affairs in 1978. The latest bout of sectarian violence in Buddhist-majority Myanmar erupted over the summer and sent tens of thousands of Rohingyas fleeing into neighbouring Bangladesh, where they joined families who have lived in refugee camps for generations.
Recent democratic reforms after decades of military rule have altered little for the Rohingya. Even as the junta frees hundreds of political prisoners, opens the economy and prepares to share power through elections, Rohingya are still prevented from owning land, moving freely and even marrying.
These restrictions are based on a 1982 law that stripped most Rohingya of their citizenship by requiring them to prove their families lived in Arakan state before 1823, when the British colonised the region. This standard often proves impossible to meet.
Burmese opposition leader and Nobel peace laureate Aung San Suu Kyi, who now plays a powerful role in Burma's democratisation has been criticised for her silence on the issue.
"She emphasises the rule of law but when the law is unjust and discriminatory on its face, how is calling for rule of law going to solve the problem?" said Mr Robertson. "There's been no response" from Ms Suu Kyi on reforming the 1982 law, he added.
In Karachi, a megacity of immigrants, ethnicity is one of the most important factors in its often bloody politics. Affiliation is crucial for access to basic services, jobs and protection from criminal groups and corrupt police. But such patronage comes in exchange for votes, which Rohingyas are unable to offer, and so the powerful political groups have mostly ignored their needs, said Qadir Mandokhail, a human rights lawyer who works with the community.
Mr ul Azam, pointing to the nearby cluster of cinder block houses under bamboo racks hung with drying fish caught at the nearby port, said: "I've been in this abadi since 1978 and we still don't have water, gas, electricity," amenities many other poor areas do have.
Rohingyas are routinely arrested, or threatened with arrest, for being illegal residents as a way for police to extract bribes. "The ones who can't afford to pay are left to sit in jail," Mr Mandokhail said.
"The National Identity Card [NIC] is our biggest problem," said Zahid Hussain, 24, a Karachi-born Rohingya who works on a fishing boat. "We are also discriminated against when we go to factories to find work. They will give the jobs to people from communities with political connections."
Mr Hussain and others in Arkanabad said that the few Rohingya who do have the NIC card, which proves citizenship, have had to buy it from corrupt officials at exorbitant prices. An official with Nara, who wished to remain anonymous because he is not authorised to speak to the press, confirmed that the practice does occur, but added that Rohingya have never been deported because Myanmar refuses to take them.
The first wave of Rohingya came to Karachi in 1978 after a major eruption of violence in Burma. Hundreds of thousands fled to Bangladesh. The Economist magazine predicted that Burma would be "flushed clean" of Muslims within six months. Pakistan's Islamist military dictator at the time, Gen Muhammad Zia-ul-Haq, offered Rohingya resident permits in Pakistan and thousands landed in Karachi, though they were never granted citizenship.
The majority of Karachi's Rohingyas, the Nara official said, arrived during the 1990s, both as economic migrants and refugees fleeing the festering violence in their homeland. "They are now the largest illegal alien population in the city after Bengalis and Afghans," he added.
But not everyone has ignored the Rohingya. Islamists, both radical and mainstream, have forged ties with the community.
Poverty led many Rohingya to send their children to fundamentalist madrasas, the only schools in Karachi that they could afford. Rohingya also settled in areas of the city that were home to Afghan refugees and Pakistani Pashtuns, bringing Rohingyas into proximity with two communities that have traditionally supported Islamist groups, Mr Mandokhail said.
In the dirt courtyard of a mosque in Arkanabad, in late August, a group of Rohingya and Pashtun members of the Tablighi Jamaat, a missionary organisation, sat discussing the violence in Myanmar.
Mr Hussain, the fisherman, said that even though he has never left Karachi since he arrived at the age of 12, he talks on the phone to his cousins in Myanmar every month. He said that members of his family had been killed in July, and that the army was preventing those who had not fled from leaving their village.
The Jamat-ud-Dawa (JUD), formerly known as the militant organisation Lashkar-i-Taiba, has been at the forefront of promoting the Rohingya cause. They staged protests in July and August and even claim to have sent a team to Bangladesh to assess how the JUD can help Rohingya refugees.
A spokesman for the JUD in Karachi, Nadeem Awam, said they plan to send doctors to the camps along the Myanmar-Bangladesh border. "Our primary aim will be to save lives, and our second priority will be to establish medicine dispensaries, mosques and schools," he said.
Ayesha Siddiqa, a security analyst based in Islamabad, recently wrote that groups like the JUD take up instances of oppression against Muslims to present themselves as defenders of the faith, and in this case possibly to make alliances with Islamist groups in Bangladesh. She said they have little interest in the actual concerns of Rohingyas, especially those in Pakistan.
Mr Awam, said that the group's leader, Hafiz Saeed, who had a US$10 million (Dh36m) bounty placed on his head by the United States in June, "will never leave the side of the Burmese in Karachi". But, he added, the Rohingya here should be given Myanmaran nationality and "treated justly in their own country" rather than being given Pakistani citizenship.
Such lip service will do little to change the circumstances of the next generation of Rohingya born in Karachi. Zaid, a 15-year-old ragpicker from Arakanabad, was addicted to sniffing glue for six years before a local non-governmental organization sent him to a rehabilitation programme. He says he has lived on the streets since his mother abandoned him seven years ago.
"I joined a gang of Burmese and Bengalis," Zaid said. "We robbed people, we stole side mirrors from cars … a lot of us Burmese end up on the streets like me."