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This work is urgent. The high court in Bangladesh has ruled that the Biharis should become citizens of Bangladesh and we welcome that after four years of very hard work. We hope that the Government will adopt the ruling, but all will be lost if the international community does not move fast to show the Biharis that the SPGRC is wrong and that citizenship means better living conditions, healthcare and education for their families and that their homes will not be demolished.

I beg the Minister to follow up on our work and to give the Biharis their self respect and the chance of a decent life in Bangladesh. The matter is so urgent. I look forward to his response.

6.38 pm

Lord Dubs: My Lords, I congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on securing this debate and also on her commitment to the cause of the Dhaka Initiative, which we have before us today. Perhaps I may say a little about the late Lord Ennals—I know that the noble Lord, Lord McNally, will want to say something too. I knew David Ennals in the Commons and we were colleagues here, but above all we worked together when I was chief executive of the Refugee Council. I knew very well his commitment to the cause of disadvantaged people. It was second to none. He put himself out enormously for that cause and his

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commitment to the Biharis was a sign of how he wanted to help disadvantaged people.

Perhaps I may say a word about my noble friend Lady Blood. She cannot be here and wanted a few words said on her behalf. She was anxious that there should be all-party support for the initiative. Perhaps I may say that I am a demonstration of one-third of that support. She knows all too well that there have been four decades of sectarian conflict because of the situation facing the Biharis in Bangladesh. There were festering wounds, which were perhaps not totally different from those in the Northern Ireland in which she has lived all her life. Her aim all along has been to work on behalf of community reconciliation wherever it may be, so she has been especially keen on support for the cause of bringing Biharis and Bangladeshis together in the way that the report suggests.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, 98 per cent of Biharis want to remain in Bangladesh, showing a clear commitment to the country in which they have lived for a long time. They have lived in squalid camps for the past 36 years in very difficult circumstances and, as the noble Baroness also said, the vast majority of them were born after the war and conflict that gave rise to their difficult situation in the camps. It is an excellent recommendation that the Biharis be given full citizenship rights. There are still some legal issues to be resolved and one hopes that they will be. The way forward is there.

International donors have a part to play in helping to achieve the political settlement that will pave the way for full citizenship. Of course it is important that the Biharis, who live in a country where there are many other poor people, are not seen to be given preferential treatment but treated as people who are entitled to certain rights that have been denied to them for all too long. They should be given those in the same way that other people in Bangladesh should be helped to raise their living standards.

The international community has enormous responsibility in this regard. I am sure that our Department for International Development will live up to that responsibility as, I hope, will the EU and other donors. This is an excellent initiative which will help the lot of very disadvantaged people.

6.42 pm

Lord McNally: My Lords, it is a great pleasure to follow the noble Lord, Lord Dubs. There could be no better person to represent the noble Baroness, Lady Blood, or our mutual late friend, David Ennals. David Ennals was one of my predecessors as international secretary of the Labour Party and I worked with him in the Foreign Office in the mid-1970s. However, it was when I came here to the House of Lords in the mid-1990s that David—as often happens to colleagues in this place—collared me and asked whether I would take some interest in the Biharis. His health was failing at the time and he wanted someone who would carry on the battle. I have to say that at the time I was completely flabbergasted that such a problem existed. It had somehow fallen off the radar.

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I went to Bangladesh with my late colleague Roy Jenkins in the immediate aftermath of the war of liberation. I can confirm what my noble friend Lady Tonge said: it was genuinely a popular war of liberation, but one that, by accident of history, left the Biharis, who had fled India at the time of partition to the refuge—as they saw it—of Pakistan, on the wrong side isolated from a Pakistan many thousands of miles away.

In the 1990s, I had meetings with the high commissioners for both Pakistan and for Bangladesh. There was no lack of willingness to try to solve the problem—at one stage, there was an attempt at repatriation—but one problem that has bedevilled the whole sub-continent, certainly Pakistan and Bangladesh, was that whenever a Pakistani Government were willing to address the situation of the Biharis, the Bangladeshi regime of the time had other priorities, and when the Bangladeshis were willing to look at the situation, the Pakistanis were involved elsewhere.

As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, pointed out, the problem was not massive on the world scale but a leftover of war with a significant number of people left in limbo. At this point, as she said, Nigel McCollum, a rather remarkable young man, came with the almost revolutionary but blindingly obvious idea of asking the refugees about their problems and what they wanted. As the noble Baroness indicated, however, that was easier said than done in the circumstances. The idea needed financing, support and the boundless energy that Nigel McCollum supplied, but also, as she said, the support at a local level of Bangladeshis of standing who would give the project a fair wind. The noble Baroness has already mentioned Professor Quamruzzaman of Dhaka Community Hospital Trust, Professor Siddiqui of Dhaka University, and Bibi Russell, a Bangladeshi campaigner. This gave local credibility to what was done.

We were also helped by Max van den Berg, the former chairman of the Dutch Labour Party, and Dame Margaret Anstey, the former UN Under-Secretary-General. That gave us the credibility to go to Governments. To be fair, the Governments of the UK, Australia, Canada, Sweden and the Netherlands, along with Muslim Hands, a British NGO, were willing to put up the money for a survey, which took some years to complete. Throughout this time, we had the steadfast and technical support of the British Council in Bangladesh, to which I pay tribute. We received reasonably large amounts of public money from half a dozen Governments, so it was necessary to have good bookkeeping and some accountability. The British Council underpinned us in that.

As I said, in some ways the Dhaka Initiative was blindingly obvious. Could we find out what the Biharis wanted, and was what they wanted achievable? As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, has indicated, the outcome of the survey, which was conducted by the Dhaka Community Hospital Trust project going from door to door in more than 70 per cent of the camps, was this quite remarkably conclusive result that the overwhelming majority wanted to stay in Bangladesh. How can that be best achieved, and what can HMG do? As the noble Baroness has indicated, here is a real

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opportunity for the UN, the Commonwealth, the EU and its agencies to put together a plan which, as the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, rightly said, must not be divisive. Bangladesh is an extremely poor country, and we know ourselves from handling problems in this country that any system that seems to give preferential treatment to the needy, however needy they are, can also provoke resentment.

We want to see plans addressing the problems of refugees in the context of what we hope will be their fellow citizens. It is good fortune that the survey was completed almost at the time when the Bangladesh High Court made this very interesting ruling, which could offer the project ultimate success by combining a good aid package from the international bodies, to which I have referred, with a move by Bangladesh to grant citizenship. That would have international support. If there still is a small minority of people who, through an accident of history, have never been to Pakistan, but who would want to go “back”, perhaps Pakistan could help.

In politics, we sometimes discuss the big issues; for example, how to cure world poverty or how to help refugees. In many ways, this is a small, addressable and soluble problem, which, if it we could solve it, might set an example to other areas in terms of what can be done to settle intractable refugee problems. I look forward to the Front Bench contributions of the noble Lord, Lord Trimble, and the Minister, both of whom in their own ways have special experience of bringing solutions to intractable problems. I hope it gives some comfort to the Biharis and the people of Bangladesh that, when they reflect on this, this Dhaka initiative will have received responses in this House from a Nobel laureate and from a Minister with very distinguished and practical experience.

6.52 pm

Lord Trimble: My Lords, I echo what the noble Lord, Lord Dubs, has said. I, too, congratulate the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on having arranged for this debate. As noble Lords would expect, I convey an apology on behalf of my noble friend Lord Glentoran who very much hoped to be here but was unable to be. Noble Lords may say that the ensuing act of desperation on behalf of my party resulted in me taking on the role of presenting things in his place.

The Dhaka Initiative’s survey, in particular, is extremely interesting and illuminating. I have no doubt about the figures; although normally when one sees the results of a survey or an election with 98 per cent in one column and 1.5 per cent in another, one suspects that there is more to it than meets the eye. But I find this result credible in view of the history of the situation and the origin of the Biharis, whose forebears come from adjacent parts of India and moved in 1946 and 1947 during partition. Where they expected to have a refuge, they found themselves caught up in another issue and, consequently, now find themselves in a very difficult situation. The survey clearly shows that the Biharis want to integrate into Bangladesh. It is equally clear that the present circumstances mitigate against that happening.



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What leapt out from the initiative report was the simple fact that we are dealing with a group of people who, ethnically, in terms of race and religion, are indistinguishable from the population among whom they are living. The distinction is made by cultural matters, particularly language. But, around language, a sense of community has persisted. Language in itself is not divisive, but it has become aligned with a political issue; namely, what has arisen out of the events of 1971. The years 1947-48 and 1971 may seem a long time ago, but they are not in terms of issues of this nature. Someone who was 20 years old in 1947 is only 81 today and no doubt will vividly relate to his children and grandchildren his memories of that time, while people who are now in their 40s and 50s can clearly remember 1971 and will tell their sons what happened. The sense of identity will be kept alive.

What is encouraging in the background is how the Bangladeshi courts have handled this issue. One must be glad to see the recent decision of the High Court in Bangladesh which states quite rightly that these people are citizens. Whatever may be the case with regard to individuals, one cannot deprive a community or a group of people of citizenship, any more than one could expel a group of citizens against their will. The court was clearly right to say that they are citizens. The question is whether they are going to be accorded all the rights of citizenship in the state. That is clearly the primary recommendation made by the initiative, and of course there is the hope that behind that recommendation lie the Bangladeshi courts, which one hopes will be able to ensure that the right of citizenship moves from being just a statement to a practical reality.

I am not in a position to know and I do not know whether the Minister is able to tell us what remedies exist in the Bangladeshi legal system to protect people against discrimination and disadvantage. If there are such remedies, the legal system may well be able to deal with the other aspects of the position of this community without the need for further intervention. It depends very much on the effectiveness of the local legal system as to whether those other disadvantages can be removed.

I note with interest the recommendations regarding UN-HABITAT’s partnership scheme for urban areas and I echo entirely the noble Lords, Lord Dubs and Lord McNally, that it must be handled sensitively so as not to create the impression that this is in some way a privileged group of persons. That is very sensible. Parenthetically, I noted earlier that the recommendations referred to a programme of the Bangladeshi Government to clear illegal slums, which I think is quite unfortunate. Legalising slums is the best way of dealing with them because giving people a legal interest in the property they occupy actually puts them on the first step of the ladder of economic development. They are given an asset against which money can be raised to finance businesses. Countries which have adopted this approach towards so-called illegal slums or shanties have seen that it works in development terms. However, I say that as an aside because it is not properly the subject of this debate. It just happened to touch on one of my hobby horses and I could not resist the temptation to parade it again.



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I conclude, as I began, by congratulating the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, on securing this debate. It is good to have the issue raised here and, like other noble Lords, I look forward to the contribution of the Minister.

6.58 pm

The Minister of State, Foreign and Commonwealth Office (Lord Malloch-Brown): My Lords, I too am grateful to the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, for raising the important issue of the Biharis of Bangladesh. The noble Baroness and the three noble Lords who have joined her in the debate have spoken movingly of the difficulties facing the Urdu-speaking Bihari people living in Bangladesh. As has been said, in the war of 1971 some Biharis fought on the side of West Pakistan while others remained neutral. They were deemed traitors as a group by the new state of Bangladesh and were initially denied Bangladeshi citizenship. Many left the country, but many remained.

The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees estimates that there are now up to 300,000 Biharis in the country. Around half have assimilated and have long been considered de facto citizens. They enjoy full access to public services and jobs, they can apply for passports, and they can own property. It is the other 150,000 who remain in camps first erected after the war on whom our concerns must be focused. The camps are overcrowded, unsanitary and lacking basic amenities and, without citizenship, these Biharis have not been able to vote, own property or travel outside the country. For years they have suffered from discrimination; they have been denied government jobs and access to public health and education. More than a third of these camp residents are illiterate and for most manual labour is the only option. As the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, said, there is nothing more depressing in this world than to see refugee camps of this kind continuing over several generations and the demoralisation that they bring to all families trapped in this nether land of camps.

It is a source of great pride for all of us in this House that, at a time when there was little international focus on the plight of the Biharis, some of our colleagues—the noble Baroness together with the noble Lords, Lord Glentoran and Lord McNally, and the noble Baroness, Lady Blood—established an all-party group. I also pay respect to the late Lord Ennals for his role in this area. As has been said, the Dhaka Initiative established a campaign on behalf of the Biharis and its work has played an extraordinary part in advocating the situation that we have today whereby the curtain is finally being lifted. Due to the initiative’s survey of the camps and the subsequent report last year international attention is being drawn to the issue in debates such as this one, and, as we will come to later, progress has been made in the courts of Bangladesh to resolve it.

I repeat the point made by the noble Baroness, Lady Tonge—that the survey revealed that 80 per cent of camp residents were born after the war and that 98 per cent of them consider themselves to be Bangladeshi. This puts to rest the previously held view that the Biharis considered themselves to be stranded Pakistanis

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who wished to return to Pakistan, a claim which some camp leaders have propagated for their own political reasons. In fact, only 0.2 per cent of those surveyed—around 300 people—expressed a wish to go to Pakistan, and the vast majority of those wanted to go for reasons of family reunion. That is an important point because it offers a real prospect of a solution which was not possible when it was thought that a large number of people wanted to return to Pakistan.

As has been said, there have now been positive developments on the legal front. In 2003, the High Court ruled that 10 Bihari residents of a camp were legal citizens of Bangladesh. In September 2007, the Election Commission recommended that all Biharis born after 1971 should be included on the electoral roll and in effect be granted citizenship. This declaration was challenged in the courts, leading to months of confusion, and in practice only those Biharis living outside the camps were able to register on the electoral roll. Those still living in the camps remained excluded. But on 18 May this year, in yet another ruling on this issue, the High Court declared that all Biharis in the country are citizens of Bangladesh. I am sure that all noble Lords will join me in welcoming this latest development.

The noble Baroness, Lady Tonge, alluded to the fact that some camp leaders do not wish to see an end to the camps. These individuals, all members of the Stranded Pakistanis General Repatriation Committee, have a vested interest, I am afraid, in the continuation of the camps. They have already organised some protests against the High Court’s recent rulings. The results of the Dhaka Initiative survey, however, make clear the overriding wish of the vast majority to be integrated into Bangladeshi mainstream society. Our high commission in Dhaka will, as appropriate, work with the Dhaka Initiative to make clear to the Bangladesh Government the findings of its survey and its report. However, I have not lost sight of the fact that there are some 300 Biharis who would like to settle in Pakistan. That is, of course, something for the Bangladesh and Pakistan Governments to resolve, but we will work with the Dhaka Initiative to ensure that they are both aware of the issue and that it is now quantified in a way that makes it much more possible to solve.

I am glad that our high commission in Dhaka has been able to help with the work of the Dhaka Initiative, including part-funding of its survey. I am grateful to the noble Lord, Lord McNally, for not pointing out that he would have liked rather more from us than he received. I am also glad that the Department for International Development is working with the Bihari community under the Urban Partnerships for Poverty Reduction project in many towns in Bangladesh. The UPPR project, which has been referred to, is a seven-year programme that started last year and to which DfID is contributing £60 million. The aim is to improve the livelihoods and living conditions of 3 million urban poor and extremely poor people, especially women and children, in Bangladesh. The Bihari community will benefit as appropriate from this project. It is an important commitment, which will help Biharis side by side with Bangladeshis in an equal, even-handed way so that there is no resentment. We should also express our appreciation for the tireless efforts of the

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representative of UNHCR in Dhaka to draw attention to the plight of the Biharis despite the fact that, as was said, they were not deemed to have formal refugee status.

Some in the Bihari community have expressed concern about the prospect of moving out of the camps and the loss of basic housing and utility provision that that will entail. We need to take those concerns seriously. I have found, over a lifetime of knowing refugee communities well, that perhaps the greatest tragedy of multigeneration life in a refugee camp is the sense of recidivism and dependency that develops. People become afraid of life on the outside. There will therefore be a need for effective transitional arrangements for those who move out of the camps, with an emphasis on housing, health and education and the opportunity of better jobs. The international community should be ready to help the Government of Bangladesh to provide that. Our high commission will be consulting UNHCR on what assistance we might be able to offer. While the initial transition may be difficult for some, the longer-term benefit of

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Bangladeshi nationality and participation in mainstream society has to make that transition worth while. In reality, most people in the camps recognise fully that any alternative to the indignity of everyday life in a refugee camp must be an improvement.

This debate has been timely, coming as it does only weeks after the High Court ruling in Bangladesh that all Biharis should be regarded as citizens of Bangladesh. I congratulate all those who have spoken tonight on their support of the Dhaka Initiative and on their important work in pursuit of the Biharis’ cause. I commit to this House that, while we appear to be standing on the edge of an enduring solution to this issue, we on these Benches will press the Government of Bangladesh to ensure that the High Court judgment is respected and enacted and will offer all the support that we can to turn it into not only the judgment of a court but the beginning of a programme of closing the camps and reintegrating the Biharis into Bangladesh as full citizens enjoying full rights.


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