When Pakistan launched its National Alien Registration Authority (NARA) in January 2002 to address the perceived problem of illegal immigration, an estimated 3.3 million non-citizens were residing unlawfully in the country, close to two million in the southern city of Karachi alone. NARA received a mandate of three years to document illegal residents in Pakistan, specifically those in Karachi, and to issue work permits to non-citizens “who will get themselves registered”. But, perhaps not surprisingly, 18 months into its mission and halfway to its deadline of December 2004, NARA has registered only 35,000 people, just one percent of the estimated total.
The reasons for NARA’s poor performance to date are numerous, though many relate to difficulties inherent in differentiating ‘real’ Pakistanis from non-citizen ‘impostors’. Immigrants and their children have blended into Karachi’s bustling urban life, and many have secured government-issued National Identity Cards (NICs), often with the help of other non-citizens elected (illegally) to local administrative bodies. More broadly, they have created their own patronage networks and ensconced themselves into Karachi’s existing ones, gaining access to jobs, political connections and social services that make them as much residents of the city as any native-born citizen.
Owing to the scale and diversity of the immigrant population, estimates of its size and composition remain rough. In Karachi, the largest segment – about 1.3 million – hails from Bangladesh, while totals from Africa, Burma and India reach into the hundreds of thousands. Most Bangladeshi migrants travel overland to Pakistan via India, where they are sometimes able to make arrangements in advance for work in Karachi, where supposedly pays are higher than anywhere else in South Asia. Karachi is also home to 80,000 Afghans, who are counted as refugees rather than as aliens on the assumption that they will return to their native country once conditions improve.
In a sprawling city of 12 million-plus people, Karachi’s non-citizen residents represent about 15 percent of the total population, and because many of them have secured voting rights, they constitute a significant electoral block. A report prepared by NARA’s Karachi office states that at least 80 unnaturalised immigrants have been elected to a cluster of 20 union councils in the city, six of which are led by non-citizens, though local government officials put the number of elected immigrants at closer to 130. Another three dozen such candidates are believed to have gained office in the interior of Sindh. And while about half of the non-citizen population in Karachi is concentrated in the city’s western district, it has spread effectively throughout the entire metropolis, often in small squatter settlements, making identification of ‘illegals’ all the more difficult.
On the whole, NARA officials’ efforts to register immigrants appear thwarted at nearly every turn, sometimes violently. Non-citizen residents in the Karachi localities of Machchar colony, Ibrahim Hyderi and Mauripur recently turned back visiting NARA officials with force, and NARA’s efforts outside of the metropolis enjoy no greater success. Attempts to register international migrants in the southern cities of Nooriabad and Thatta, in Sindh, and Hub, in Balochistan, have failed, casualties of patronage networks and organised resistance to the campaign. “The problem is that aliens have got powers to resist and help their other fellows to become Pakistanis”, an officer explains, noting that he and his colleagues are ill-equipped to overcome such tactics. NARA also suffers from more banal organisational woes, in particular cash shortage that prevents it from acquiring a fleet of vehicles or expanding its staff beyond its present four-dozen employees.
Owing to its size and uncertain legal status, Karachi’s non-citizen community has enmeshed itself in the patronage networks of politicians and political parties, trading votes for political protection. The millions of non-citizen residents living in Karachi have proven to be a valuable vote bank for political parties, particularly for those with weak roots in the metropolis.
Mazhar Shaikh, an additional director general of NARA, expresses dismay at the nearly impossible task of registering non-citizen residents, the fault for which he says rests in large measure with their political connections. “A number of them have become elected nazims [mayors] and councillors, who stop their community members from getting registered”. He says that once elected, these officials push through NIC applications for other non-citizens to help them evade detection by NARA. Shaikh says that he has notified the National Database Registration Authority (NADRA), which issues NICs, about the difficulties NARA faces with identity card evasion tactics. A solution is yet to be found. “A joint line of action is under consideration”, says Shaikh, adding that the powers of some councillors to attest NIC applications may be suspended while discreet investigations are carried out. For its part, NADRA says that it is reviewing candidate filings in an attempt to root out politicians who lack citizenship.
Ejaz Shafi, a former MP who lost an election last year standing from Karachi as a candidate of the Pakistan Muslim League (Nawaz), has championed the cause of Bangladeshi migrants for more than a decade. In return he has received support from the thousands of immigrants for whom he has helped secure NICs and space on voter rolls. Though he lost last year’s race to a candidate of the religious parties alliance, Muttahida Majlis-e-Amal, Shafi received strong support from the estimated 20,000 Bangla-speakers in his constituency. As a strong supporter of the community, he refuses to use to the term ‘alien’ to designate persons of Bangladeshi origin living in Pakistan. “They are Pakistanis in all respects, by all conditions universally accepted for citizenship”, he says.
Other parties, such as cricketer-turned-politician Imran Khan’s Pakistan Tehrik-e-Insaf, Allama Tahir-ul-Qadri’s Pakistan Awami Tehrik, and former president Farooq Leghari’s Millat Party, have made concerted attempts to cultivate Bangla-speaking voters. Many political aspirants seek support from residents of Machchar colony, a squatter settlement inhabited by 50,000 Bangla-speakers on land owned by the Karachi Port Trust (KPT). The KPT has made several attempts to evict residents, but each time influential politicians come to the aid of the slum-dwellers. “When I was an MP from this area, I did not allow the KPT to evacuate them”, Shafi says, adding that he suggested instead that the port reclaim land from the upscale Clifton locality.
However, not all political parties cultivate the foreign-born vote – indeed, some doubt the calculations on immigrant electoral strength, and others have tapped into local resentment of the large Bengali community to mobilise support. A leader of the Muttahida Qaumi Movement (MQM), an offshoot of a partition-era north Indian organisation of Urdu-speakers, argues that patronage networks have not worked to the advantage of immigrants, as despite being included on voter rolls, the government “cautiously sliced them out of Karachi’s population” when it came to distributing resources. However, this has not stopped parties from pandering to non-citizens at election time, he says, and he accuses several of illegally registering non-citizens as voters. “Even rightwing Jamaat-i-Islami activists have put many Afghan voters on rolls in the city’s central district to harm the MQM”, he says. Another political mobiliser, this one from the Pakistan People’s Party (PPP), perhaps the most powerful political force in Sindh, says that his group does not register non-citizens, as doing so would harm the interests of Pakistanis.
Controversy surrounding immigrants extends to the job market, where local resentment is perhaps more acute than in the field of politics. For non-citizens who find work, it is typically as domestic servants, as low-wage employees in the garment or fishing industries, or in jobs such as sugarcane pressing. Because they are usually willing to work for less pay than native-born Pakistanis, they attract the ire of locals as well as muffled praise from employers, who tend to be exploitative.
Many ethnic and nationalist political organisations, as well as labour groups, regularly carry out campaigns against immigrant employment on the ground that recent arrivals damage the economic prospects of the native-born. Along with the MQM, the Jeay Sindh Qaumi Mahaz (JSQM) opposes the growing presence of non-citizen workers in Sindh’s economy. The parties’ election manifestoes accuse immigrants of depressing local wages, and promise improved job prospects for native-born (Urdu-speaking) Pakistanis once they are able to prevent migrants from participating in the economy. “These aliens are a burden on Sindh”, JSQM chairman Bashir Qureshi says, adding that it is the government’s responsibility to solve the problem.
Searching for ‘solutions’
The MQM’s Kunwar Khalid Younus argues that the government should settle the illegal immigration problem once and for all. “What we need is just the political will to do that”, he says. As far back as 1993, intelligence agencies considered competing proposals to ‘solve’ the problem, one being a massive repatriation scheme, primarily of Bangladeshis. This was deemed impractical, however, as for its part, Pakistan refuses to take in the ‘Biharis’ – the nearly 300,000 Urdu-speakers who have languished in 66 Bangladeshi urban refugee camps since the early 1970s. In any event, the “exporting” countries are unlikely to cooperate with Islamabad’s repatriation schemes; in August 1996, Dhaka refused to accept 70 Bangladeshis deported from Karachi because they carried Pakistani NICs and passports.
What ‘solutions’, if any, can be found to the non-citizen resident question is a matter of pressing concern in Islamabad. In addition to launching NARA and debating the repatriation scheme, Islamabad has investigated other methods of regulating immigrants’ existence and bringing them within the scope of the law. There is a process by which non-citizens can secure legal residence and work status, but its costs are prohibitively expensive for most immigrants: until recently, PKR 10,000 (USD 180) and PKR 1000, respectively, for registration and work permit cards. Even after reductions to PKR 2500 and PKR 500, most non-citizens lack the finances to take advantage of these options, particularly when becoming ‘legal’ is not viewed as a pressing concern. “We often spend much less than this to get [forged] Pakistani documents”, a Bangladeshi migrant living in Federal B Area explains. For citizens of Bangladesh and Burma, there is also the option of formally applying for Pakistani citizenship under Rule 13/A of the Citizenship Act, though Islamabad has approved less than 1000 of such naturalisation applications till now.
Another idea is to provide migrants with transit back to their countries of origin on non-citizen Pakistani passports. A committee convened by the federal government, which included two Bangla speakers as ex-officio members, recommended the issuing of so-called ‘white passports’ to migrants from Bangladesh and Burma so that they may visit their countries of origin and migrate back, if so inclined. But to receive a white passport, migrants would first have to register with NARA and fill out Form E-I under the Citizenship Act, a step most non-citizen residents are hesitant to take. However, this plan possesses the advantage of offering an avenue for migrants to return to their birth countries, if they so desire, and some NGOs have expressed interest in facilitating such a process and providing financial support to returnees.
While many Bangla-speakers in Pakistan arrived relatively recently, there is also the challenge of adjudicating the citizenship claims of Bengalis whose residence dates to the 24 years between the 1947 partition and Bangladeshi independence. The same federal committee that issued the recommendation about white passports also proposed granting Pakistani citizenship to Bengalis – not Bangladeshis – living in (West) Pakistan before the Bengali nationalist capture of Dhaka on 16 December 1971. After Bangladesh’s war of independence, fewer than 25,000 Bengalis opted to remain in Pakistan, according to NARA director general Shaikh, while most of the rest migrated to the former eastern wing. A 1978 amendment to the Citizenship Act nullified the Pakistani citizenship of those domiciled in erstwhile East Pakistan. Bengalis remaining in Pakistan were required to submit a Form E-I to the home department of their province of residence and apply for citizenship, although according to the Sindh home department, no Bengalis submitted such forms in that province after the war. Many of these people have led a precarious legal existence for the past three decades.
The government committee also held meetings with Bengali community representatives and, in response to concerns that they lack documentary proof of residence, proposed that local police officials be empowered to recommend the granting of citizenship after verification. Critics, however, say that this proposal would only lead to massive corruption among police officers. Another widely shared concern among non-citizen residents is the suspicion that the entire government registration process is merely a plot to launch deportation proceedings once particulars are known to authorities. Interior ministry officials dismiss this claim, and note that none of the 35,000 migrants registered to date have been deported. “On the contrary, we are trying to resolve their civic and social problems, including extending them educational, health and other facilities”, says one official. He also discloses that the government committee has been asked to review other countries’ immigration and citizenship policies in order to suggest improvements in Pakistan’s system.
13 kg of bad publicity
Debates about the role of ethnic-minority non-citizens in Pakistani society and politics, and the proposed methods of dealing with the concerns of and about them, are also coloured by anxieties about the supposedly dangerous and illegal practices of some elements of the immigrant population. Statements from Pakistan’s interior ministry indicate that there is increased official concern about non-citizen residents’ involvement with religious schools accused of fuelling sectarian hatred, and with criminal activities ranging from burglaries and murder to international drug trafficking. A recent interior ministry socio-economic survey showed that non-citizens are concentrated in 22 localities of Karachi, many in ‘sensitive’ places near sea, oil and power installations and army cantonments, prompting the police to recommend mass evictions in these areas.
Concerns about links to religious violence are heightened given Karachi’s experience with sectarian violence. NARA research shows that the migrant community is making concentrated use of 29 government schools and nine hospitals, and operates 44 madrasas, about five percent of the city’s 869 Islamic schools. Regarding those schools, authorities say that, despite it being a small proportion of the city’s total, they are nevertheless worried about an influx of students into these largely unregulated institutions.
Today, most foreign students in the madrasas come from Afghan, Burmese or Bangladeshi backgrounds, although until two years ago there were also large numbers of African and Southeast Asian students. With the opening of the US military campaign in Afghanistan in October 2001, however, overseas enrolment in Karachi’s madrasas plummeted, and now foreign-born students represent only four percent of the 264,169 madrasa student total for Sindh, 85 percent of which is concentrated in Karachi, according to a recent police report.
The already precarious position of foreign-born residents in Karachi vis-à-vis the police is further complicated by military and law enforcement efforts associated with the US ‘war on terror’. The US Federal Bureau of Investigation (FBI), with the help of Pakistani authorities, is closely monitoring mobile phone conversations in Pakistan, and has arrested hundreds of foreigners suspected of links to Al Qaeda and other militant outfits. The FBI conducts operations in the country with the blessings and assistance of Pakistani officials, who have toed the US line since September 2001. Among the several thousand people arrested to date in these operations, officials say that about 700 are non-Pakistanis, mostly Afghans and Arabs, but there are also some Africans, Bangladeshis and Burmese.
The police also highlight migrants’ participation in local crime, in particular their connections to robbery, kidnapping, narcotics smuggling, human trafficking and murder. “We have evidence of their involvement in serious offences, and we have recommended that the government take the issue seriously”, the inspector general of Sindh police, Syed Kamal Shah, alleges. According to a police report, non-citizens are implicated in a widespread network of trafficking girls from Bangladesh and Pakistan to the United Arab Emirates. Police also suspect that immigrants have worked as hired killers in Karachi’s recent spate of high-profile murders.
These concerns came to the surface in late spring with the high-profile arrests of three Bengali drug smugglers. On 21 May, Bangladeshi airport authorities arrested three women travelling on Pakistani passports for possession of 13 kilograms of heroin valued at USD 2.25 million, one of the largest drug hauls ever in Dhaka. Pakistani authorities had tipped off their Bangladeshi counterparts, who discovered the contraband in paste tubes hidden in the women’s luggage. A preliminary investigation into the case by Pakistani officials uncovered that the traffickers were Karachi-based Bengalis who had bribed officials to receive documents attesting Pakistani citizenship. According to Pakistani authorities, travel on forged or falsely issued Pakistani documents is quite common, though it is ‘real’ Pakistani citizens who receive a bad reputation for such practices. Several Afghans have also been caught committing similar crimes, though Bengalis are believed to be more frequent offenders.
The Dhaka drug bust, extensively covered in the Pakistani media, led to hand wringing and accusation-levelling in Karachi. An official of the PPP cites the heroin arrests as evidence of the negative consequences of migrants participating in the political process. Others point to the implications of the incident for the entire bureaucracy. A thorough investigation into the Dhaka case, if and when it occurs, could raise troubling questions about the efficiency and integrity of NADRA, which issues NICs and prepares voting registers, as well as other departments in the internal affairs ministry, such as the passport-issuing authority. Precisely how long corrupt practices have been occurring, and the extent to which bribery permeates the system, are difficult to assess, although anecdotal evidence paints a worrying picture.
The heroin arrests prompted great interest at least in part because they touched on another widely held concern about non-citizen residents – their alleged widespread drug use. According to a United Nations Development Programme report, drug abuse among immigrants in Pakistan is rampant, and because of needle-sharing authorities suspect that HIV is on the rise in the community. Even so, such drug use is both a cause of concern and a symptom of their perilous condition, as many take up the expensive indulgence to alleviate the psychological stress and general frustration of leading a quasi-legal existence.
Yet, whether it concerns illegal activities or dangerous habits, official and popular scrutiny of Bangla speakers is greater than that of native-born, Urdu-speaking Pakistanis, and there are concerns that allegations of criminal activity are being exaggerated to malign the community. An October 2001 report in the Dawn of Karachi on immigrants in Pakistan states, quoting police sources, that “the over-all involvement of Bengalis in crime is negligible”, and that “contrary to a general perception”, at most 200 Bengalis are involved in crime in Karachi. This appears to contradict some of NARA’s positions, such as the claim that non-citizen residents are “adding to the crime rate”. Given that persons who lack clear legal status will likely seek to avoid activities provoking the interest of law enforcement officials, there appear to be grounds for doubting some of NARA’s more sweeping charges of mass criminality in the migrant community.