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Pakistani Sindhis raise alarm over possible settlement of Rohingyas from Saudi Arabia

Rohingya refugees (Photo: IANS)

People in Pakistan’s south-eastern province of Sindh have voiced fears that Rohingyas currently residing in Saudi Arabia might be settled in their area, impacting their demography. The Sindhis have been protesting for decades that communities from other regions and countries have been made to settle in their province which has led to increasing violence, loss of opportunities and dilution of Sindhi culture.

Their fears stem from an agreement recently signed between Pakistan and Saudi Arabia under which Islamabad will renew passports for Rohingya Muslims residing in Saudi Arabia. Pakistan had not renewed the passports of its own nationals since 2012 causing hassles for the Rohingya community working in the kingdom.

The agreement has opened up a can of worms as activists in Sindhi say that lakhs of Rohingya people in Saudi Arabia will now be settled in their province. This possibility has also exacerbated the divide between the Sindhis and the Pakistani Punjabis as the former question why are the Rohingyas not being settled in other provinces like Punjab.

Some Sindhi activists have alleged that a cash-strapped Pakistan might have taken money from the kingdom to take back the Rohingya refugees. However, it is not clear whether Islamabad will issue passports to Rohingyas who entered Saudi Arabia from countries other than Pakistan.

The agreement over the Rohingyas was signed between Pakistani Interior Minister Rana Sanaullah and Saudi Deputy Interior Minister Dr Nasir Bin Abdul Aziz Al-Dawood in Islamabad last week.

Under the agreement, Pakistan will issue passports to the Rohingyas and their children living in the kingdom. The two nations also have formed a bilateral committee to expedite the issuance of the documents by Pakistan.

It is estimated that for over a decade, more than 2,25,000 Rohingya people were facing difficulties with Saudi immigration authorities as their passports had expired. All these years Pakistan did not make efforts to update the documents.

On the other hand, Saudi authorities wanted the Rohingyas to leave due to lack of documentation. Riyadh courted controversy a few years back when it tried to send back members of the community to Bangladesh.

Saudi Arabia had put hundreds of Rohingya Muslims in detention centres as many were found in possession of fake passports from numerous countries including Pakistan, India, Bangladesh, Myanmar and other countries. Hundreds of Rohingyas went on hunger strikes at the Shumaisi detention centre in Jeddah repeatedly as they did not have proper documents. Leaked videos from the detention centres showed the deteriorating health of the protesting people.

In Pakistan the Rohingyas live in abject poverty. They are mostly concentrated in Karachi – Pakistan’s business hub and financial centre. Estimates put their numbers at about three lakhs. Most are fishermen and are concentrated in two areas – Ali Akbar Shah Goth and Arakanabad, in Karachi.

Also, they prefer to call themselves Bengalis from Bangladesh rather than Rohingyas from Myanmar and claim to have reached Pakistan from Myanmar and East Pakistan in the 1960s and 1970s – before the creation of Bangladesh in 1971.

Despite being Muslims, and settled for decades in Karachi, Pakistan has not made efforts to recognise the community as its own. Islamabad may get the UN to declare an international day for Islamophobia but the discrimination it practices upon its own ethnic population has been imposed upon the Rohingyas as well.

The Rohingyas in Pakistan are Stateless as under Pakistan laws, they are not considered asylum seekers or refugees. More than half a century later, the community lives in poverty, faces extortion by police, harassment by the local authorities and is vulnerable to illegal activities.

Many left for Saudi Arabia when they heard that the kingdom was offering residency permits. Once in Saudi Arabia, they again found themselves in a soup as Pakistan did not renew their documents. Finally, after over a decade, Islamabad has offered to take back its own people.