Rohingyas of Karachi struggle to deal with identity crisis

Published September 16, 2017
Elders in the Ali Akbar Shah Goth are disturbed by the Rohingya ‘genocide’ in Myanmar and want Pakistan to intervene in the matter.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star
Elders in the Ali Akbar Shah Goth are disturbed by the Rohingya ‘genocide’ in Myanmar and want Pakistan to intervene in the matter.—Fahim Siddiqi / White Star

KARACHI: Ali Akbar Shah Goth and 100-Quarters in Arakanabad are the biggest dwellings of Rohingya Muslims in Pakistan though few will admit they are originally from Myanmar.

Since they all first crossed over to Bangladesh, in different times, to reach Pakistan, they prefer to call themselves Bengalis.

Gathered with other community elders at a tea stall in the market area of Ali Akbar Shah Goth, Nur Ahmed said he along with other Bengalis had come to Karachi even before the separation of East Pakistan, as “this country was created for Muslims”.

“I came here when General Tikka Khan was governor of East Pakistan,” he added.

Asked if he had arrived in East Pakistan from Myanmar, then Burma, he quickly shakes his head. “We have so much trouble as a Bengali here. We have had to pay extra, even up to Rs50,000 sometimes to get a Pakistani identity card made. And when the card expires, there is another wall to bang our heads against. It will be even worse if we happened to be Burmese. Then we wouldn’t even have this CNIC from Nadra [National Database and Registration Authority] because people from Myanmar don’t even get a refugee status here,” he explained.

But at the mention of Myanmar, there was some whispering amongst themselves.

Tahir Shah, a young man in crisp white shalwar kameez and a white prayer cap, was very vocal and passionate when speaking about the Muslim ‘genocide’ in Myanmar.

Around 250,000 Rohingya Muslims have been settled in different parts of the city even before the separation of East Pakistan

“We are all Muslims, united by one religion. We are brothers. If one has a headache, another should feel his pain. But here in Pakistan somehow, I feel that there is not as much sympathy for us as there is for Afghans and the people of Kashmir. Sure rallies are being taken out for them, but what about our government?” he said.

“Have you seen the pictures coming out of Myanmar? It makes my blood boil. Not just grown-ups, they’re drowning babies in water or tossing them in the fire,” said the young man who also insisted that he was Bengali and definitely not Burmese.

“We care for the Rohingya as we care for the entire Muslim Ummah. Why can’t Pakistan stand up for the poor people like Turkey?” he questioned.


Most of the community members settled in Arakanabad are fishermen. Kamal Shah of the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum said that the identity card problem was bigger than it seemed. “They are constantly harassed by law enforcement agencies. When going out to fish they get into trouble with the coast guards or the Maritime Security Agency due to this,” he said. “Those who don’t have CNICs then prove their nationality either by showing B-forms or their nikahnama,” he added.

“And it is the worst if any of them gets picked up by the Indian Coast Guard while mistakenly crossing over to that side which is an unfortunate but frequent occurrence here as well as there,” said Mr Shah. “Then the Indian government does not know where to deport them after completing their sentences as they are stateless,” he explained.

Settlements in the city

Nur Hussain Arakani, who is president of the Burmese Muslim Welfare Organisation, said there were around 250,000 Rohingya Muslims settled in Karachi in areas such as Korangi, Landhi, Keamari, Orangi, Liaquatabad and Bin Qasim Town.

“But yes, it is true that they will not write on paper that they are Rohingya. They prefer to be called Bengalis,” Arakani said while speaking to Dawn.

“Just like this when Saudi Arabia started giving iqama [residency permit] to the Rohingya, the Bengalis started saying that they were Burmese. Not just them, but even our Pakistanis sometimes resort to it in the hope of getting residency permit there,” he said.

“But here when they don’t even have the basics such as a CNIC life comes to a standstill. Without a B-form, the children can’t be admitted to schools, without CNICs our women giving birth can’t be admitted to hospitals, the dead cannot be buried, we can’t open bank accounts, if anyone had a job he is not entitled to pension later, the fishermen don’t have fishermen’s cards and our people can’t even buy train or plane tickets to travel. And then police harassment is another huge problem. Getting out of their clutches deprives us of thousands of rupees every time,” he shared.

“Then what does a person do when doors to so many things are closed? Turn to crime obviously,” he answered his own question.

“Did you know that Arakanabad has been a part of Karachi’s map when it was first made?” he asked. “It is proof of the fact that Rohingyas were here before even 1971, as Arakanabad is named after Arakan, a state of Myanmar [now known as Rakhine],” he explained.

“I urge the interior ministry, the president and the prime minister to please give these hardworking people Pakistani nationality,” he said.

Published in Dawn, September 16th, 2017


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