The government has started planning the move to Hatiya Island in the Bay of Bengal in a plan backed by the prime minister, Sheikh Hasina, according to a government official, Amit Kumar Baul. Bangladesh plans to relocate thousands of Rohingya refugees who have spent years in camps near the Burmese border to a southern island.

“The relocation of the Rohingya camps will definitely take place,” said Baul, the head of the government’s Myanmar refugee cell. “So far, informal steps have been taken according to the PM’s directives.”

A Rohingya leader urged the government to rethink, saying the plan would only make life worse for the refugees, many of whom have been languishing in the camps for years. “We want the government and international organisations to resolve our issue from here,” said Mohammad Islam, who lives in one of the camps.

Related: Cages, watchtower and 37 graves: inside an abandoned migrant camp in Malaysia

Bangladesh is home to 32,000 registered Rohingya refugees who are sheltering in two camps in the south-eastern district of Cox’s Bazar. The Muslim Rohingya leave Burma largely to escape discriminatory treatment by the Buddhist majority.

The UN refugee agency, which has been helping the refugees in the camps since 1991, said such a scheme would have to be voluntary to succeed. “The success of the plan would depend on what will be on offer in the new location and if the refugees would like to be there,” said a UNHCR spokeswoman, Onchita Shadman.

A forced relocation would be “very complex and controversial”, she said.

Baul said the move was partly motivated by concerns the camps were holding back tourism in Cox’s Bazar, home to a 125km-long sandy beach. “The government has been giving importance to the tourism sector. Therefore, a plan to relocate them to an isolated area is under way.”

Thousands of Rohingya from Burma, as well as Bangladeshi migrants, have been attempting perilous boat journeys organised by people smugglers to south-east Asia.

Migrants often travelled to Thailand by boat, then overland to northern Malaysia. But Thailand has cracked down on smuggling after the discovery of mass graves there, which appears to have thrown regional human-trafficking routes into chaos.

More than 3,500 migrants have arrived on Thai, Malaysian and Indonesian soil in recent weeks and hundreds or thousands more are feared trapped on boats.

Seven camps – some with dozens of graves believed to contain the bodies of Rohingya – have been uncovered in Thailand’s Songkhla province, close to the Malaysian border.

Rights groups say local people must have been aware of the trade and on Wednesday Thai police said they wanted villagers to aid their investigation.

An armed Royal Malaysia Police stands guard in an abandoned camp in which graves are found at Wang Burma hills at Wang Kelian, in Malaysia.
A Royal Malaysia police officer stands guard in an abandoned camp where graves were found at Wang Kelian. Photograph: Fazry Ismail/EPA

Malaysian media have reported that police are investigating 12 of their own officers to determine whether they had links to mass graves found in Malaysia, close to the Thai sites. A total of 139 grave sites and 28 abandoned camps have been found on the Malaysian side of the frontier, but the number of dead is unclear.

The US has backed the investigation, calling for a “transparent, credible and expeditious effort” and urging Malaysian authorities to prosecute those responsible.

Details of Bangladesh’s plans emerged just days after Hasina slammed her country’s own economic migrants, calling them “mentally sick” and accusing them of damaging the country’s image.

The island plan, reported this week in local media, has not been formally announced but officials have been asked to prepare for it. Badre Firdaus, the government administrator of Hatiya Island, said 200 hectares had been identified as a suitable site.

The move would not include the estimated 200,000 unregistered Rohingya asylum seekers who have fled across the border over the past decade and taken refuge in Muslim-majority Bangladesh. Most live close to the two camps but are not entitled to food or other aid.

Rights groups say these Rohingya survive in appalling conditions, living on the margins and running the gauntlet of Bangladeshi authorities.

Hatiya, home to farmers and fishermen and located at the mouth of the Meghna river, is a nine-hour journey by land and sea from the camps.

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