DHAKA: Bangladesh is to hold a census of hundreds of thousands of undocumented Rohingya who have crossed into the country seeking refuge from persecution in neighboring Myanmar.

Foreign Secretary Shahidul Haque said the government had earmarked $2.7 million for the census to be carried out in Bangladesh’s southeast, near the border with Myanmar’s Rakhine state.

Official estimates have put the number of undocumented Rohingya in Bangladesh at between 200,000 and 500,000, in addition to around 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees living in two U.N.-managed camps.

“The procedure (census) will commence any time during the second half of this year,” Haque told AFP Tuesday after briefing diplomats about the move.

The mainly Muslim Rohingya minority started crossing into Bangladesh in the early 1990s from Myanmar.

They say they face discrimination and mistreatment by that country’s Buddhist-majority government, which does not recognize them as citizens.

Their plight was thrust into the global spotlight this year when thousands of desperate migrants headed mainly for Malaysia had to be rescued from rickety boats in waters off Myanmar’s coast.

But the Rohingya are deeply unpopular in impoverished Bangladesh, and it is unclear how the government plans to use the data.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM), which is assisting Bangladesh with the census, said it was a positive move for the stateless migrants.

“The government may provide them with identification cards after the census that may allow them to get health services and may help give legal cover to their stay here,” IOM spokesmanAsif Munier told AFP.

Officials of the Bangladesh Bureau of Statistics, which was tasked with conducting the census, said some Rohingya might be reluctant to take part for fear they would be deported.

But one Rohingya leader welcomed the move.

“We’ve been here for so long facing unrelenting hardship. I hope the census will bring the unregistered refugees under a list so that they can avail all the rights of a legal refugee,” Mohammad Islam told AFP.

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