COX'S BAZAR • Bangladesh's government began its first census of undocumented Rohingya refugees on Thursday, setting off fears that it might lead to a mass relocation or forcible repatriation of the refugees to Myanmar.
The Rohingya, a Muslim ethnic group in western Myanmar described by the United Nations (UN) as the most persecuted minority in the world, have crossed the border in waves over several decades.
About 32,000 are sheltered in camps administered by the UN, but hundreds of thousands more live undocumented in squalid, makeshift camps or are scattered around south-east Bangladesh, vulnerable to human traffickers and exploited as cheap labour.
The population has swelled since 2012, when anti-Muslim riots started taking place with renewed frequency in Myanmar.
The Bangladeshi authorities say the camps are hubs of criminality. Last year, some officials expressed support for a plan to move thousands of refugees to a remote island in the Bay of Bengal that is inundated with water during monsoon season, a notion that was met with anger by the UN and then quietly shelved.
In 2013, concerned about swift population growth among the Rohingya, a government team recommended that the UN provide rations for no more than two children per family, and that the group's movements be limited to within 4km of the border with Myanmar.
In 2014, the law minister decreed that officials should no longer register Rohingya marriages. Stories of Rohingya getting picked up by the security forces and being forced to return to Myanmar are common.
As census-takers fanned out through Cox's Bazar, the tin doors of many shacks were marked with the letters CUMN, for "census of the undocumented Myanmar nationals". Residents expressed hope that the headcount would lift them out of limbo, as well as concern that it could instead lead them to an abrupt return to Myanmar.
"We're floating people," said Ms Nuur Samon, an undocumented Rohingya woman who lives in one of the shacks a few hours north of the camps.
"If the government wants to make us move, what can we do about it? Nothing," she added. "But, at least, take us somewhere where we can have a community, where we can build schools, where we can have a madrasah.
"We'd like to go back to Myanmar - once it's safe."
Mr Alamgir Hossen, the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics official in charge of the project, said estimates of the Rohingya population varied so widely - from 300,000 to 500,000 - that a census was necessary. Preliminary surveys have already turned up a previously unknown Rohingya community in Patuakhali district much farther to the north-west, dispelling assumptions that the ethnic group is present only near the Myanmar border.
"At first, we thought they'd hide from us," Mr Hossen said. "We were surprised with how open they were with us. People we were surveying would call their neighbours and tell them to give us their information."
Mr Dudu Mia, a member of the management committee of the makeshift Leda camp, said he encouraged his community to participate in the census, highlighting the appeal of documentation that could pave the way for resettlement in other countries.
NEW YORK TIMES