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From South to South: Refugees as Migrants: The Rohingya in Pakistan

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Bouncing in and out of muddy pot-holes, I noticed something fairly unusual in Pakistan. In a nation with perhaps the most feverish cricket obsession in the commonwealth, it is almost a strange sight to see boys play anything else. Instead of multiple cricket games being played on dusty pitches, in the decrepit streets of Korangi, one of Karachi's city's violent, sprawling slums, I saw hundreds of children, instead, playing soccer.

Aziz, my diminutive driver hired from the Karachi Sheraton, was an enthusiastic member of a mostly apolitical Muslim missionary sect and, as was required by the sect's goals, was often keen to share with me about his life and sense of renewed faith. When asked about the religious and ethnic milieu that made up his community, he mentioned off handedly that a congregation of Muslim refugees from Burma attended the mosque near his home in Korangi. This piqued my curiosity considerably. I've had an idea for sometime that by meeting people living on the world's geopolitical periphery, I can learn the most about both globalization and its attendant wars.

Aziz was a mohajir, an Urdu speaking Muslim whose family migrated from northern India to Karachi, then the capital of a newly created but ill conceived Islamic Republic of Pakistan. The root of the Arabic term mohajir is hijira, symbolizing the Prophet Mohammed's flight from Mecca to Medina in the 7th century. This term is used to describe what was likely the 20th century's largest migration that took place in the ashes of the British Raj when the empire abandoned the "jewel of the crown". Aziz was an enthusiastic member of an evangelical, Islamic revivalist movement called Tablighi Jamaat ("Conveying Group"). One of the Tablighi's primary aims is to renew religiosity amongst wayward Muslims and other communities at risk in the Muslim world where the movement believes the influence of the faith has lessened due to political and cultural factors. Tablighi Jamaat was busy influencing a new group of mohajirs, the Rohingya of western Burma.

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Saraj ul-Islam, in his 80s, had his farm confiscated and crops destroyed by the Burmese junta.

It was here in the warrens of Karachi's underbelly that the Rohingya founded a settlement after fleeing persecution by the Tatmadaw (the Burmese military). The Rohingya, after suffering acute religious persecution, were a perfect fit for the Tablighi's proselytizing.

Aziz's neighborhood also houses thousands of stranded Bangladeshis who presence in Karachi pre-dates Bangladesh's 1971 linguistic-based liberation war from Pakistan. These quasi-indigenous Bangladeshis have then been joined by more recent Bengali migrants seeking wider job opportunities and a chance to earn a stronger currency. Aziz informed me that the missionaries from Tablighi Jamaat were quite active in Korangi. They were also hugely influential in Bangladesh where the group hosted the world's second largest yearly Islamic pilgrimage after the Hajj.

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Rohingya children studying the Qu'ran at the Madrassa Usmani in Karachi.

Arriving in Korangi, I immediately was greeted by a roadside lined with busy fresh fish stalls on one side and a herd of hulking, tar colored water buffalo blocking the rickshaw traffic on the other. I felt like I had been transported into a sliver of Southeast Asia on the Indian subcontinent. The most noticeable cultural contrast to the rest of Karachi was the appearance of the lungi, the ubiquitous floor length national dress of Bangladesh and much of Burma. We went to visit a small Rohingya settlement near Aziz's one room concrete block home. In comparison to the immense suffering I would encounter in Bangladesh, the people I met were relatively prosperous and urbanized with some of them having been in Pakistan for decades. I wanted most to know how they came to arrive in outer Karachi from western Burma, which I gathered to be an immense logistical feat.

Aziz introduced me to a few Rohingya families crouched under a shade tree down the road from the local mosque. A gaunt old man named Saraj ul-Islam spoke up and told me how his journey commenced. The Tatmadaw had come to his farm some twenty years ago and claimed they were doing a census on behalf of the junta. Since Saraj was one of Arakan's land owning Muslims, the soldiers burned his crops, confiscated his land and told him in no uncertain terms that he must leave Burma with his family because the Burmese are a Buddhist people and he "must have come from somewhere else" implying he was of South Asian origin. At first he fled to southern Bangladesh and lived in a majority Bengali village where other refugees had temporarily made their homes. It was not long before the Bangladeshi authorities told him and his family that they were not welcome there either. Like many Burmese fleeing Arakan state, Saraj did not arrive in a large, visible exodus. He and thousands of his countrymen arrived in a quiet yet constant trickle across the Naf river. It was at this point that he and many of the Rohingya in Pakistan morphed from being destitute refugees displaced by the Tatmadaw's brutal coercion into actual economic and religious migrants seeking work in Pakistan.

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A Rohingya boy hawks vegetables in a Bangladeshi bazaar in Karachi.

Saraj told me that missionary Pakistani members of Tablighi Jammat had convinced him that Pakistan would much more suit his tastes. Saraj, who stated that he was around 85 years old, said he would return to Burma immediately if he could have his land back and was allowed to openly practice his religion.

A fellow Rohingya friend of Saraj's named Hamidullah, donning a brilliant blue plaid lungi, told me of he and his people's flight to Pakistan. Realizing they had no future as refugees in a country that refused to recognize them as such, they had gravitated towards Chittagong (Bangladesh's 2nd largest city) after being shoved out of Burma. In Chittagong, they linked up with a vast human smuggling network that regularly trafficked both refugees and migrants through Bangladesh, across all of northern India and then south down through the deserts and plains of eastern Pakistan. Along a well worn circuit of bribes, corrupt border officials and rigorous night crossings, and after weeks or months of body numbing travel, the Rohingya continue to arrive in Pakistan. Some of them die en route or simply get stuck in transit and end up stranded in India or a part of Pakistan or Bangladesh that they never intended to be in. Though many of them are voluntarily trafficked, some are sold in prostitution or bonded labor upon arrival in their desired destination city. In other words, the people I met were the more fortunate ones.

As long as General Than Shwe remains firmly in power, Saraj's right of return is a highly unlikely fantasy. While readers in the West may be under the impression that Burma's ultra repressive regime is essentially an isolated outlier on the global stage, it is far from it. General Shwe and his bizarrely named State Peace and Development Council do not exist in a vacuum in an era where hungry economies are vying for scarce resources. In a fully globalized world, every state will be a participant in the ebb and flow of trade regardless of their record on human rights. If Burma's ruling generals can outlast the decline of the world's remaining altruistic foreign policies, they may be able to leverage Burma's now much needed resources to gain a kind of crude legitimacy.

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Rohingya migrants posing in front of a garment shop.

In the twisted realm of South Asian proxy politics, India has accused Bangladesh and Pakistan's intelligence services of supporting insurgent groups such as the United Liberation Front of Asom and the National Socialist Council of Nagaland who are fighting against Indian rule. In turn, these groups have taken periodic shelter in western Burma after allegedly being trained in militant camps in Bangladesh. It is quite common practice in South Asia for rival governments to aid in agitating ethnic grievances in the other's territory in order to keep their opponents off balance. The Rohingya, while once being left to fester during the Sino-Indian rivalry that followed China's invasion of India in 1962, are now an absolute lost cause in the noise of this new competition. The economic tentacles of these emerging powers are furiously grasping for influence inside both Burma and Bangladesh. Over the decades since the Sino-Indian confrontation, China supplied arms to anti-Indian war fighting groups in Burma, Bhutan and Bangladesh when irritating Delhi suited Beijing's aims of the day. China also supplied arms to both the Burmese junta and ethnic guerrillas fighting the junta depending on the politburo's mood swings. War by proxy is politics as usual in the region, and Burma exists in its most dim corner.

After hearing first hand accounts of hijira from the Rohingya elders, Aziz and I then visited a bare-walled, local Burmese religious school called Madrassa Usmani. There, I met a group of Pakistani-born Burmese children who were rocking back and forth studying the Qu'ran on a fraying sun bleached carpet. A young maulvi (religious instructor) named Abdullah told me that the people of his generation witnessed mass destruction of their religious institutions by the junta as they were being forced out of their once home country. In Pakistan, it was the Islamic charities who provided aid and "proper" religious instruction for the children of the community as per the standards of Pakistani society. It is from just this milieu where students can be cultivated into fighters. I left with only the hope that these vulnerable, young Rohingya would not fall for the siren song of violent radicalism gripping much of modern Pakistan. As we have learned the hard lessons from the militancy spawned in Pakistan's notorious Afghan refugee camps, it is not terribly difficult for yesterday's victims to become tomorrow's aggressors.

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Market scene in Bangla Para, Karachi.

I explained to my driver that I didn't have quite enough material for a story and that we needed to delve deeper into the area. He said it wouldn't be safe to proceed any further without the guidance of his brother. Aziz's brother, it turned out, was an MQM operative. The MQM, which stands for the Muttahida Quami Movement, is Karachi's dominant political force and sometime terrorist outfit. The MQM controls large swathes of this 15 million strong port city with a mix of intimidation and sheer brut force. From the comfort of our air-conditioned sedan, we followed Aziz's brother on his motorbike through alleys strewn with burning rubbish flooding with humanity until we reached an area called Bangla Para (literally "Bangladeshi Area"). When we arrived, our car was immediately surrounded by curious Bangladeshis who looked particularly at me with a great deal of suspicion. I followed the MQM man deeper on foot into the bazaar capturing its life on camera while also inquiring about its inhabitants ethnic identity, a naturally sensitive subject in an area full of illegal migrants living outside the mainstream of Pakistani society. I essentially had the MQM man ask groups of men and boys which languages they spoke and went from there. Many of the Rohingya had come to Karachi hoping they could find work in the fishing industry as they had done in Arakan. The irony of them fleeing Bangladesh is that they seemed to be naturally drawn to settle amongst Karachi's Bengali community. Here they could attempt to blend in with the Bengalis with their colorful lungis and white skull-caps. The people of southern Bangladesh spoke a dialect known as Chittagonian that is somewhat mutually intelligible with the Rohingya's language. Since both groups had essentially fled conditions in Bangladesh (albeit for very different reasons), they also shared the same arduous migration as recent common history.

Speeding away from the squalid neighborhood these former refugees now call home, I naively said to my driver, "I actually felt pretty safe there." Aziz looked at me skeptically and said in his heavy Pakistani accent, "that is the most dangerous area of Karachi." Considering Karachi is one of the world's most violent cities, I would shudder the next day when I read in the nation's leading English-language daily that five men had been shot dead in Korangi during my brief visit.

Upon entering into the overwhelming traffic of Karachi proper, I thought it a strange fate that the Rohingya fled an area where they faced state orchestrated violence only to arrive in another area plagued with rampant crime and anti-state and sectarian terrorism. Karachi may have its dreadful shortcomings but at least here in their relative anonymity, the Rohingya are free. While in India the call centers buzz, and in China the factories hum, in Burma, the generals keep marching.