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Khalid Hussain, an Urdu-speaking Bihari in Bangladesh

Khalid HussainKhalid Hussain from Bangladesh highlights his plight as an ethnic minority. Photo credit: UN Photo

Khalid Hussain is a Bihari from Bangladesh.  He describes the Urdu speaking Biharis as the most disadvantaged group in Bangladesh because they are not recognized as citizens in the country they regard as their home.

Hussain brought the story of the Biharis to the special event, Voices: ‘Everyone affected by racism has a story that should be heard’, at the Durban Review Conference in Geneva.  He told his audience that since the partition of Pakistan in 1971, more than three hundred thousand Bihari people have been living in makeshift camps all over Bangladesh.

Hussain lives in the Geneva camp, set up by the International Committee of the Red Cross, in 1971 and named after the organisation’s Swiss headquarters.  One of the largest in Bangladesh, the Geneva camp is home to around 25 thousand people who live in houses measuring on average 13 square metres which accommodate 5 to 8 people.  For the entire camp there are 250 public toilets.

"As Biharis," Hussain says, "we have no access to any means of survival in society - socially, culturally and economically."

His own story is typical.  On completion of primary school, he and other students tried to enrol at the local high school but were refused.  Their only option was a private school which most could not afford. 

At the private school, the Bihari students were treated as a race apart. "I remember my first day of school.  All the Bengali students were looking at us as if we were strangers and they were whispering to each other that we are Bihari and that we live in dirty camps…We were marginalised in the classroom and we had to sit in a separate row."

Khalid described the extreme difficulty Biharis experience trying to access employment and escape poverty.  "Not only are we denied all government positions but also due to our addresses in the camps and our undefined legal status, wider discrimination in the job market remains a prime concern."

"As a result," he said, "the vast majority of Biharis are pushed into the informal sector, working as rickshaw-pullers, drivers, butchers, barbers, mechanics and craft workers".

A group of Biharis, including Hussain, did achieve an historic breakthrough in 2003 when they challenged the election commission’s refusal to include them on the voter listing.  The  Bangladeshi High Court ruled that the people in the camps "are Bangladeshi".

Despite that advance, Hussain believes the situation of the Biharis has worsened. "Intolerance on the part of mainstream civil society has increased.  There has been very little interest amongst the mainstream human rights organizations, legal aid bodies or women and children’s organizations…Voices need to be raised," he said.

Hussain concluded by talking of tolerance and appealing for a change of attitude which would reduce the discrimination endured by his community.

"I trust," he said, "that one day we will see a world free of racism, racial discrimination and intolerance."

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