Cox’s Bazaar, Bangladesh – The Bangladeshi government is conducting its first census of undocumented Rohingya refugees who have escaped violence in neighbouring Myanmar.
The United Nations describes Rohingya as the most persecuted minority in the world. Up to half a million have escaped to Bangladesh.
Many Rohingya, however, fear the ongoing targeted census will lead to them being sent back.
During the decades of Aung San Suu Kyi’s house arrest, when global interest in the plight of Myanmar’s refugees was at its peak, few were aware that the Rohingya Muslims even existed, let alone that they constituted the bulk of those who had fled the rule of the generals.
Think of refugees who have fled from Myanmar and those that usually come to mind are the Karen, the Shan and other minorities with ethnic ties to the Burmese people, seeking shelter in the misty hills of northern Thailand.
Few picture the fetid hovels here in southeastern Bangladesh where 200,000 Rohingya Muslims cram together for survival.
Today, with Aung San Suu Kyi holding a powerful role in Myanmar’s politics, many of the country ethnic groups are sensing a glimmer of hope, albeit not without significant reservations.
The same, however, cannot be said about the Rohingya.
Whether in western Myanmar’s Rakhine state, southeastern Bangladesh or Malaysia, this group remains the subject of almost universal hatred from their neighbours.
With Aung San Suu Kyi ascendant, the human rights community’s discourse has shifted a bit more towards campaigning for the Rohingya, especially after thousands of them were found drifting helplessly on boats off the coasts of Southeast Asia, and the discovery of mass graves of Rohingya trafficking victims along the Thai-Malaysia border.
But for whatever reason, the level of international interest and support – whether from the human rights community or the public, or from Aung San Suu Kyi for that matter – pales in comparison with her house-arrest days.
Now, as Bangladesh conducts its first census of the undocumented Rohingya population, government officials say the project is clearly a good thing, forming the basis of future initiatives to help the community effectively.
Speaking to Al Jazeera, Alamgir Hossein, the census project director, said: “If you are going to help them in any way, whether it’s through international aid assistance or medical assistance, whatever it is there is no alternative to getting the proper facts and figures.”
Some Rohingya, too, are enthusiastic about the census. They are happy finally to be recognised as a community and hopeful that this will firm up their identity both in Bangladesh and internationally.
However, others have good reason to be apprehensive about the implications. After all, the Bangladesh government and the Bangladeshi people have not been their friends so far.
They have been denied education for their children and medical care for their ill.
Women and girls have fallen prey to sex traffickers while men and boys have been easy targets for human traffickers supplying slave labour to Southeast Asia.
Historically, a targeted census has rarely been good news for a vulnerable, persecuted community.
In Bangladesh, some Rohingya worry that once the government has conducted its survey, it will round them up and relocate them or, worse, push them back to Myanmar.
Mohammad Kalam, an ethnic Rohingya, eloped with his wife from Myanmar to Bangladesh eight years ago, but has found it impossible to register their marriage in Bangladesh.
“Instead of sending us to Myanmar, it would be better if they killed us here,” he told Al Jazeera.
“My wife and I were able to get out last time. This time if we are sent back, they will see us as criminals and they will definitely send us to prison or kill us.”
The Bangladesh census labels the Rohingya as Myanmar nationals and, as such, is sure to provoke opposition across the border, where people describe the community as foreign Bengalis.
Some aid agency officials speculate that as democratisation in Myanmar continues, Bangladesh will use the census result as the basis for declaring they have “X” number of Myanmar nationals – and that Myanmar should take them back.
At that point, the stage could be set for the Rohingya to find themselves in the middle of another quarrel, one they will once again have little control over.