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Pakistan's Undocumented Communities Struggle to Access COVID-19 Vaccines

Machar Colony is one of the largest housing quarters in Karachi and home to Bengali, Burmese, and Afghan migrant communities. Here, people stop in their tracks to let cars pass by while some of the denser streets allow only one person to walk at a time. Four women wearing black abayas sit forming a semicircle in a school run by a non-profit. It’s a regular school day and kids of varying ages sit together, books opened, moving between subjects of Urdu, math, science, and art.

“I have 100 rupees lying at home, and I don’t know what I’ll give to my children to eat today, once I take them back from here,” said Shakeela, a mother of the students at the school. “We don’t care about the coronavirus when we already have so many problems.” she said.

The women, like thousands of others in the Machar Colony community, are not aware of the importance of the COVID-19 vaccine or whether it is available to ordinary citizens. Even if they were aware, there’s little to nothing they can do to get it because they are among the estimated 3 million people in Pakistan with no state-issued identity cards.

Pakistan’s COVID-19 vaccine administration protocol is tied to its population’s national identity cards. Citizens send their national identification numbers to a government-run helpline which communicates a registration code and a date for inoculation at a vaccine site. The Ministry of Health has approved five vaccines: Sinopharm, Cansino, Sinovac, Sputnik, and AstraZeneca. In theory, all citizens ages 18 years and above are eligible to receive the vaccine.

At present, a little over 3% of Pakistan’s population is vaccinated and vaccination statistics are expected to remain dismal for the migrant population in particular. According to U.N. reports, tens of thousands of people with roots in Bangladesh, Myanmar, and Afghanistan are among the ‘invisible’ millions around the world left unprotected against the COVID-19 pandemic. Many of them live in Pakistan.

Some of these communities in Pakistan are referred to by the conflated term "Bengali."

Post-partition of the subcontinent in 1947, Pakistan existed as east and west states with present-day Bangladesh being the then Eastern Pakistan. During the partition, many Muslims from Indian states such as Bihar and Uttar Pradesh moved to Eastern Pakistan looking for economic prospects. Similarly, because of the geographical continuity with the Arakan district of Myanmar, Rohingya Muslims also migrated into Eastern Pakistan. In 1971, post the war between East and West Pakistan, East Pakistan became the newly independent as Bangladesh. Tens of thousands of migrants, with origins in India and Myanmar (interchangeably referred to as "Bengalis" now), sided with Pakistan and moved there. These migrations are now supplemented by the influx of refugees from Afghanistan and Myanmar.

Members of this "Bengali" community, whose numbers account for about two million as per unofficial NGO and community sources, are scattered in over 100 settlements across Karachi city. They face constant challenges on many fronts and government officers discriminate against them based on their accents and areas of residence, often declaring them "illegal."

Nasira*, 32, a teacher and administrator at a school in Machar Colony says that everyone except her 18-year-old brother has a national identity card. He was born in Pakistan, legally remains protected under The Pakistan Citizenship Act 1951, and has other citizen family members. Yet he is denied an identity card. “He’s told off from the counter of the facility that they don’t make cards for “Bengalis” as he’s staying illegally here,” said Nasira.

In such familiar scenarios, several thousands, like Nasira’s brother are denied identity cards.

It was an ordinary day for Alisha* a second-year medical student when she found out that her identity card was no longer valid and that now she was an illegal citizen. “Imagine your future dissolving like that in front of your eyes because one day you woke up and you’re now stateless,” said Nasira, who is related to Alisha.

Officially, migrants can establish legal status in Pakistan. However, the government maintains one condition: the documents migrants and refugees present to prove migration and residence in Pakistan should be issued before 1978. Therefore, in theory, everyone who entered Pakistan before 1978 should be able to receive legal citizenship.

In reality, however, it is difficult to establish and prove pre and post-1978 migration statuses. Administrative difficulties meant people were often issued erroneous identity cards. Some people lost the documents over time or had simply qualified as Pakistanis by their birth.

Safoora, a migrant mother of three, is part of the informal workforce involved in shrimps cleaning at a cost of less than half a U.S. dollar for a bucket load. Counting the day of the interview, Safoora’s husband has been out fishing for the past 17 days. She doesn’t know how soon he will return, if at all, and whether he will bring a catch or money. “Once he worked for a month at a private company and peeled shrimps every day without a holiday. They wouldn’t even let him take a 5-minute break to pee,” she said. “They didn’t pay him a rupee for his work. He had no payslip or registration with the company since he doesn’t have an identity card,” she said. “He would cry helplessly,” she said.

“I have lent my identity card to men going to the boats (for fishing) a few times. I know it’s not legal as they tamper the photo, but what option do they have? If they don’t catch fish, they starve,” said Zafar Alam, who had worked in fisheries for two decades but has now retired as a gatekeeper in school. “I have neighbors who left their families because they had no money or hope to look after them. No one knows their whereabouts. You look at their kids’ faces and you know they won’t have it any different either.”

“There are not a lot of options to help people who have no documents unless they have children who are eligible for birthright citizenship,” said Hiba Thobani, an advocate offering legal aid services to the community. “The subsequent generations of these migrants are Pakistanis by birth and have the right to be citizens.”

After coming to power in 2018, Prime Minister Imran Khan vowed to grant citizenship to refugees from Afghanistan and Bangladesh who were born in Pakistan.

“Imran Khan’s announcement gave our people so much hope,” said Alam. “People had gathered whatever documents they had because they felt they were being heard for the first time by the top government.”

On the other hand, very little conversation has occurred at the government level to resolve the correlation between identity crisis and vaccine administration.

In May 2021, the leader of Pakistan’s COVID-19 task force and Minister for Planning, Development, and Special Initiatives, Asad Umer admitted that vaccination of people without identity cards is an immense challenge for the country. He stressed that the priority is to vaccinate those who had cards. All those registered with the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) and had proof of registration would get vaccinated.

For the past several years, the UN Refugee Agency has been involved in the repatriation and registration of Afghans through consultations between the governments of Afghanistan and Pakistan. Through this process, 1.4 million Afghan refugees are registered in Pakistan and can access COVID-19 vaccine through this registration proof. However, at least a million others refugees remain undocumented and deemed ‘illegal’, in the same boat as the “Bengali” community.

Presently, the Pakistan government is aiming to vaccinate at least 70 million people. Through collaborative efforts with China, they have started local production of the single-dose vaccine, PakVac.

“To achieve herd immunity, we need to be vaccinating about half a million people every day, irrespective of whether they have national identity cards,” said Dr. Qaiser Sajjad, Secretary-General of Pakistan Medical Association, the country’s premier medical organization.

Others in the community feel there is a way to vaccinate the communities if the government had a will. “I don’t understand why inoculation is tied to every individual’s identity card. ” said Sami-ul-Haq, leader of the community in Machar Colony, whose family has also served in local government years ago. Haq believes birth certificates should be proof enough to prove one’s belonging to Pakistan and the right to vaccine. “The population has birth certificates as they have held on to it as proof for years. If we are born here, we should get the vaccine.”