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Tens of thousands of Bengali migrants face bleak future in Pakistan

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    Tens of thousands of Bengali migrants face bleak future in Pakistan

    Tens of thousands of Bengali migrants face bleak future in Pakistan
    KARACHI, Dec 8 (AFP) -
    Abdul Razzaq bribed border guards in Bangladesh and India to cross into Pakistan 15 years ago but now worries over the new military regime's plan to declare some two million migrants as aliens.

    "If I am caught, who will feed my wife and son?" said Razzaq, 30, on the eve of the World Day for Migrants.

    Razzaq is among tens of thousands of Bangladeshis living in this port city. They crossed into the Thar and Cholistan deserts in southern Pakistan from India after paying money to middlemen.

    Human rights activist Zia Awan says the agents grease palms at check posts, first in Bangladesh to enter India and then in the Indian state of Rajasthan to cross into Pakistan.

    Thousands more arrive via the divided state of Punjab, he said.

    Bengali settlers say the middlemen charge up to 10,000 rupees (200 dollars) each while agents in Pakistan help arrange passports and identity cards.

    Interior Minister Moeenuddin Haider last week said the government of military ruler General Pervez Musharraf was working on a law covering more than two million immigrants in Pakistan.

    Illegal immigrants would be issued alien registration work permits which would be vaild for three years and renewable in some cases, Haider said.

    "On expiry of the permit, the immigrant will have to leave the country," he added.

    Foreign residents include more than 1.6 million Bengalis, 300,000 Afghans, 200,000 Burmese, Iranians, Sri Lankans, Filipinos as well as people from Central Asian republics.

    The men work in garment factories, in carpet-making, fisheries and restaurants while women are engaged as domestic servants.

    Officials say at least 800,000 foreigners entered Pakistan illegally between 1989 and 1993.

    They suspect many are engaged in crime in this violence-prone city.

    "There are Bengali gangs who run prostitution dens and Afghan groups involved in arms and drug smuggling. They are a headache," said Hussain Asghar, a senior Karachi police official.

    But Bengalis complain of police high-handedness.

    "I pay the police from my meagre income to avoid arrest, the employers also exploit our weakness and treat us like slaves," said Razzaq, who is planning to leave Pakistan.

    "People all over the world are talking today about the rights of migrants. But we are treated here like second rate citizens," said Sualeh Zahoor, chief of the Bengali Charitable Association.

    In a Bengali settlement here, the signboards are in Bengali and shops, decorated with posters of Bangladeshi Prime Minister Hasina Wajed and opposition leader Khaleda Zia, sell audio and video cassettes of Bengali music.

    The community also runs its own daily Qaumi Bandhan (national unity).

    "We have no objection if criminal elements are thrown out, but those who have not committed any crime have the right to live here," said Dhana Mian, adding there were many Bengalis who opted for Pakistan after the creation of Bangladesh in its eastern wing in 1971.

    For them the solution lies in gaining Pakistani citizenship, he said.

    "What about the children born here?" he said.

    "We are accepted neither by Pakistani nor by Bangladesh," he said.

    Another Bengali, Ahmed Kabir, prefers to stay in Pakistan. "Maybe the government will not deport such a large number of Bengalis," he said hopefully.