Nine-year-old Dil Muhammad was born in a fishing village on the outskirts of Karachi. His parents migrated to the bustling financial centre when the Pakistani rupee held more value than the Bangladeshi taka. Theirs was an economic migration.
Muhammad Ali, 8, a Rohingya by ethnicity, chose Karachi as his permanent abode to escape persecution in Rakhine State of Myanmar (Burma). The city not only provides his family with food to survive, but also freedom to visit the local mosque – an unthinkable idea in his native land. He too settled with others of his community near the sea.
The Bengali and Burmese, mostly illegal immigrants, have gradually increased in number to become major players in the fishing industry. If asked to pack up and leave, the $1.2 billion (approximately Rs127.32 billion) fishing industry may face disastrous setbacks.
Employed at the lowest rung of the economic ladder, the community still plays a major role to push each day forward at fishing jetties across the city. Women and children perform menial tasks, while men in groups of 70 and 80 mount boats and go on long fishing trips.
An ordinary day at these settlements by the sea begins with a visit to the local ‘vaara’, a place where trawlers laden with fish dump their goods. As early as five in the morning, they queue outside. The first one to reach gets the most work. They return with baskets full of fish and shrimp, which they clean throughout the day.
Because children with small fingers are suited best for the work, child labour is rampant. “I peel about three to five baskets of shrimp every day. On a good day I make Rs200,” said nine-year-old Sanjeeda. Often ice inside the baskets makes their hands numb and they use henna on their finger tips to soothe the pain.
The children who fail to get work at the fish factories gather at speed breakers and broken roads. They pick up the trail of fish that open trawlers filled to the brim leave on their way to the factories. Their collection can go home as food for the day, or the city bazaars where they sell what they can.
Over 800,000 people depend directly or indirectly for their livelihoods on the fishing sector where exports make up $230 million (approximately Rs24.403 billion), states a study published in 2010 by the United Nations Industrial Development Organisation.
According to the Pakistan Fisherfolk Forum (PFF), 50 percent of the fishing industry is dominated by the Bengali and Burmese communities, of which Burmese make up two-thirds of the workforce.
Although the National Alien Registration Authority has only managed to register a few thousand of these nationals, independent estimates suggest that their numbers are much more.
“When they started settling in the city, they barely made up 50,000. But an average family size in these communities is 12, so over the years their population has increased,” said Kamal Shah of the PFF.
The immigrants arrived between the ’70s and ’90s, mostly through land, crossing the Bangladesh-Burma border, then the Bangladesh-India border, and then the India-Pakistan border.
“Many of these people were kept in refugee camps where women were often raped and men taken bribes from, before giving them a safe passage to the next country,” said Shah.
They settled in squatter settlements at Rehri Goth, Chashma Goth, Ibrahim Hyderi, Machhar Colony and Korangi 2½ – localities situated along the coastal belt, mainly because fishing was the only profession they were familiar with.
Rana Asif, president of the not-for-profit Initiators, which works with children from the community, said: “The community has now formed a parallel economy. The fishing industry depends on them. This is true for most other immigrants who come to the city. Like the Afghans who dominate the garbage recycling industry and the tandoors where bread is made.”
Renowned city planner Arif Hasan claims that if the community is sent back to their home countries, the gap would be filled by other fishermen. “If asked to leave, their jobs will be taken up by Sindhi fishermen. In such poverty there is no dearth of labour.”
But he maintains that it is unlikely that the government will ever displace such a large number of people. “Especially when members of the community have managed to obtain identity cards. Whether they are fake or real is a different debate altogether.”
With schools opened by the civil society in the area, the community has developed interest in education. The need for an identity card is felt even more when students need admission in university or employment in factories. Locals claim to have paid a sum of Rs15,000 to Rs20,000 to get identity cards.
If education brings with it upward mobility and citizenship continues to cost a few thousand rupees, soon the lines may blur.
This generation of children speak fluent Urdu and know how to protect their ethnic identity. “I was born in Pakistan. No, I am not Burmese,” said nine-year-old Ahmed who collects rotten fish to sell at a chicken feed factory. But his visibly Mongolian features make him stand out.