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Photo courtesy: GMB Akash
Photo courtesy: GMB Akash

The dire living conditions and discrimination faced by the Bihari people over the last 41 years is well documented. After the Bihari people found themselves stateless when East Pakistan became Bangladesh in 1971, they have dealt with years of oppression and political, social and economic insecurity. Forced to live in various ‘camps’ in urban areas throughout the country, Bihari’s were denied access to Bangladeshi healthcare, education and employment and consequently have lived in abject poverty. In recent years, with the recognition of the Bihari people as citizens of Bangladesh in the 2008 Supreme Court Case Sadat Khat v The Chief Commissioner, these oppressive conditions have slowly begun to improve. However, not all the rights associated with citizenship have been afforded to the Bihari people.  The most pressing is the government’s reluctance to allow the Bihari people living in the urban ‘camps’ a Bangladeshi passport. This document will outline the reasons why restricting access to passports does not make sense in the eyes of the law and also how it hinders the opportunity for Bihari people to contribute to the Bangladesh economy.

Since 2008, 5 Bihari people living in the Geneva Camp in Dhaka have applied for a passport and been denied on the grounds that there “has been no ‘authoritative instruction’ from government on whether or not Bihari’s living in the camps can have passports.”[1] When the government requested the Election Commission to enrol all Urdu speaking Biharis on the election role and give them national ID cards (providing the hard proof of citizenship), this ‘authoritative instruction’ pertaining to the right to hold a passport was also given. This is because the Law of Bangladesh does not separate the right to hold a passport from citizenship. It can be inferred from section 6 of the Passport Order 1973 that citizenship automatically gives you the right to a passport (provided the citizen has not been convicted of a crime or other illegal act detailed in section 6).[2] By the granting of national ID cards and consequent citizenship, the Bihari people have the same rights as any other Bangladeshi to hold a passport. In the eyes of the law, the government instruction is irrelevant, but in any event was given when it requested the electoral commission to give Bihari’s national ID cards.

Another reason for the denial of one application was that the citing the ‘Geneva Camp’ as an address does not fulfil the ‘permanent’ address criteria required for a successful passport application. The Passport Order 1973 and the Passport Rules 1974, set out the law and rules surrounding who can apply for a passport, reasons why a passport will be denied and how to apply for a passport. Nowhere in either the Order or Rules does it state that a permanent address is required to qualify for a passport.[3] Not only this, but the notion of ‘permanent address’ is not defined anywhere. To say that those living in the Geneva Camp do not have permanent addresses is completely arbitrary. The Bihari’s have been living in these camps, residing in the same places for over 40 years. How is this less ‘permanent’ than someone entitled to a passport who is renting a property outside a camp for 1 year or a daughter living in her parents’ house? There may be issues surrounding the ‘ownership’ of the land in the Camps, but these are property law issues and are separate from the rights Bihari’s are entitled to as Bangladeshi Citizens. Because the notion of ‘permanent address’ is not defined and not a requirement in the Passport Order and Rules, denying any citizen on the basis of not having a permanent address is discriminatory and therefore in breach of the constitution.[4]

Not only will the ability to hold a passport be of obvious benefit to the Bihari people, enabling them the right to freedom of movement, it is also in the interests of the Bangladesh economy. The Bangladesh economy is heavily dependent on labour migration. It is one of its core foreign currency earnings and in the 2010/2011 financial year amounted to 11.5% of GDP.[5] The success of the labour migration sector, among many things is having a population willing to go abroad and work. One of the main reasons why the Bihari community is determined to have passports is because they have skills that can be transferred to labour jobs abroad. Denying Bihari’s their right to a passport is simply denying an opportunity for Bangladeshi citizens to contribute to the development of the economy through labour migration. From an economic perspective, it is short sighted for the government to limit the labour migration resource pool by not allowing one section of society a passport.

The preamble of the Bangladesh constitution states “it shall be a fundamental aim of the State to realise through the democratic process a socialist society, free from exploitation – a society in which the rule of law, fundamental human rights and freedom, equality and justice, political, economic and social, will be secured for all citizens.”[6] Bihari people are citizens, this is no longer a question or even an issue to be debated. At its most basic form, restricting the access to a cornerstone of social, political and economic justice – the right to hold a passport – is a breach of the foundation of the constitution of Bangladesh. Denying the right to a passport is a restriction on the fundamental human rights and freedoms of movement, rights afforded in any democratic country and protected also under article 36 of the Bangladesh constitution.[7] The Bihari people living in Bangladesh consider themselves Bangladeshi. They have the same individual, community and national aspirations as any other Bangladeshi. Passports will enable them to travel and work abroad not only increasing their own individual capacity but also contributing to the economic development of Bangladesh.

Hanah Weir is a international law specialist and barrister from New Zealand working on rights of the marginalized in Bangladesh.

[1] Hussain, Khalid, “The End Of Bihari Statelessness” http://www.fmreview.org

[2] The Bangladesh Passport Order 1973, Section 6.

[3] The Bangladesh Passport Order 1973, The Bangaldehs Passport Rules 1974.

[4] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Articles 27 and Article 28

[5] Unnayan Onneshan-The Innovators, Bangladesh Economic Update – Remittance, Volume 2, No. 8, September 2011, Pg. 13 http://www.bdresearch.org

[6] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Preamble

[7] The Constitution of The Peoples Republic of Bangladesh 1974, Article 36.

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