Helping the over 200,000-strong Bihari minority in Bangladesh learn how to read and write is key to their full integration, say activists.
"I wanted to go to school but my father faced great financial difficulty. I can count and I can get by, but I would like to study,” a Bihari youth, Bablu Mehtub, 19, told IRIN.
According to Refugee and Migratory Movements (RMM), a University of Dhaka affiliated research group, 94 percent of today’s Bihari community are illiterate.
The once stateless, Urdu-speaking minority who only recently gained citizenship, were shut out of state schools for decades.
“These communities are highly scarred having spent generations in the camp[s]… Though government schools have started enrolling Bihari children in the past 8-10 years, so much more needs to be done,” C.R. Abrar, the group’s coordinator, told IRIN.
In 1971 Biharis - named after their Indian region of origin - found themselves in a diplomatic dilemma: Linguistically tied to Urdu-speaking Pakistan, they were living in Bengali-speaking Bangladesh when the latter won independence from what today is Pakistan.
Viewed as collaborators of then West Pakistan, the Bangladesh state effectively denied them access to public education until 2000, and citizenship until 2008.
Promises of repatriation stalled, applications were refused and statelessness ensued. Almost 40 years and two court rulings later, and despite the reaffirmation of their Bangladeshi citizenship, more than 100,000 still reside in ghettoes created in the 1970’s, while a greater number battle for national entitlements, according to RMM.
Over half of all Biharis in Bangladesh are under 25, so the struggle for education resonates with them.
Photo: Jessica Mudditt/ IRIN
|Bihari youth Bablu Mehtub|
“Without doubt literacy remains the biggest barrier to our assimilation,” said Ahmed Ilias, executive director of Al-Falah, Bangladesh, the only registered NGO working with the Bihari community.
While some have managed to finish higher education - fewer than two dozen, according to Abrar - most face a life of menial labour.
A lawyer and president of an association of young Urdu speakers, 29-year-old Khalid Hossain, told IRIN he was also denied entrance to state primary and secondary schools for living in a Bihari camp.
After winning a scholarship to attend a private school, Hossain said his address at Geneva camp, one of the largest communities of Biharis in the capital, Dhaka, prevented him renting accommodation outside the camp. “It’s really important that the camp identity be removed. Why can’t we be given a normal address?”
After being denied state education for so long, it is difficult for Urdu speakers to compete for admission to schools, given the dominance of Bengali, he added. “We need a quota for education, like other minorities.”
Efforts to address this problem are being made, according to the government.
The director-general of the government’s bureau of non-formal education, Reazul Kader, said the government had already set up 12 learning centres with 20 NGOs since 2006 in Geneva camp, the largest Bihari site, and would expand courses in 2011 to reach all school-aged youths in the camp as part of a drive to achieve 100 percent literacy nationwide by 2014.
However, Bangladesh, a flood-prone poor country of more than 150 million, has a host of other problems to contend with, including 37 million illiterate people. The national literacy rate is 53 percent, according to UN Development Programme.
Call for help
But the state alone cannot afford to finance these and other citizen services, according to Abrar from the University of Dhaka. “Bangladesh should take due credit for solving a protracted stateless situation. We have solved this problem by ourselves and should go to the international community to seek assistance with the implementation.”
He called on the government to meet Biharis to identify their needs and to develop a comprehensive rehabilitation and integration programme to address education, health, livelihood and shelter issues for Biharis.
“The government needs to engage in targeted development… There needs to be a clear message from the government to the community that you have been wronged for the past 37 years and we will set things right,” said Abrar.
In response, the director-general of the government’s department of relief and rehabilitation, Zahirul Haque, told IRIN: "There are no plans to arrange a comprehensive rehabilitation programme for the Biharis.”