Stateless & Helpless: Plight of Ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan

Even though they are born in Pakistan, ethnic Bengalis are deprived of official recognition and citizenship.

By Hajira Maryam

Kulsoom Yamir training at a gym in Pakistan [Hajira Maryam/Al Jazeera]

Kiran Jaffar and Kulsoom Yamir are teenage gymnasts in Pakistan’s southern city of Karachi who are hoping to represent the country at international events.

But both know that, as things stand, they stand no chance of fulfilling that dream. They are stateless Bengalis in Pakistan. Without any official identification document, they can’t move forward.

Jaffar, 15, and fourteen-year-old Yamir live in Machar Colony, one of Karachi’s largest slums that is home to an estimated 700,000 people.

For these girls and their families, living there means living within the streams of densely packed houses, unfinished roads and poor sanitary conditions as a part of their daily life.

Approximately 65 percent of Machar Colony inhabitants are ethnic Bengalis and more than half of them have no citizenship or are stuck in a process of getting one, according to Tahera Hasan, lawyer and director of the charity Imkaan Welfare Organisation.

Yamir says she wants to “proceed in my life as a gymnast, perhaps even become a coach”.

Jaffar, with her vivid smile, shares the same aim: “When I grow up, I want to be a professional gymnast and become a coach, teaching the sport to others.”

“But our family is struggling to get an ID card, due to which going to a proper school and even something basic as having a bank account is very difficult for us,” Yamir tells Al Jazeera.

Growing up in extreme poverty

The girls train at a learning and recreational centre called Khel (which means sport in Urdu) located in the slum.

The centre provides a space through educational learning and sports to 170 underprivileged children, including Jaffar and Yamir.

Inside, the appearance of Khel is a contrast to the grim reality of the slum in which it is located – colourful walls, upbeat music, floor mats and balance beams.

Jaffar and Yamir, as well as their parents, were born in Pakistan [Hajira Maryam/Al Jazeera]

Stateless Bengali, as well as Pathan children, wearing yellow tights and shirts, aged five to 15, rigorously perform acrobatic moves with the help of their coaches.

“It was a great challenge to train these children as gymnasts,” coach Muhammad Furqan, who has been training these children for the past five years, tells Al Jazeera.

“All of them have grown up in extreme poverty. They have never even seen a park in their life. Living under such hardships, they don’t know what compassion and gymnastics really was.”

He then gets busy assisting energetic young gymnasts to perform backflips and cartwheels.

There is laughter and some teasing if one loses balance and falls over.

Ethnic Bengalis in Pakistan – an estimated two million – are the most discriminated ethnic community.

Many of them have been living in the country even before the 1971 civil war which led to the creation of present-day Bangladesh which was previously East Pakistan.

Even though they are born in Pakistan, ethnic Bengalis are deprived of any official recognition and citizenship.

They can’t vote or have access to public health or government schools.

“They label us as aliens, refugees, foreign, depriving us of our rights,” Sheikh Muhammad Siraj, chairm