(New York) – China should stop its forced returns of thousands of ethnic Kachin refugees to northern Burma, where they are at risk from armed hostilities, Burmese army abuses, and lack of aid.
During the week of August 19, 2012, Chinese authorities forcibly returned at least 1,000 Kachin refugees to Burma. Human Rights Watch has learned that China plans to deport another 4,000 refugees imminently. Most of the returnees will find it too dangerous to return to their home villages, leaving them displaced amid an armed conflict in Burma.
“China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone rife with Burmese army abuses,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director. “China should urgently change course and provide temporary protection for the refugees in Yunnan Province.”
The Kachin refugees repatriated the week of August 19 were not allowed to remain in the more than a dozen makeshift camps in China in which they had lived since June 2011. In July 2012, authorities in Yunnan Province, along Burma’s northern border, visited Kachin refugees and informed them they were no longer welcome in China and had to return to Burma.
A local Kachin aid worker who has communicated directly with the Yunnan authorities told Human Rights Watch, “I went to the camps when the [Chinese] authorities came to give a speech to talk about this to the refugees. They said, ‘We cannot accept you living here. We allowed you to stay here for over one year but it is no longer possible for you to stay here. You must go back.’”
While the Chinese government has provided sanctuary to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin who fled conflict-related abuses in Burma and sought safety in Yunnan Province, the authorities have failed to provide them temporary protection or aid. The Chinese government has denied United Nations and international humanitarian agencies much-needed access to these refugees. Those returned to Burma will be relegated to living in camps for internally displaced people that lack adequate aid and are currently isolated from UN agencies because the Burmese government has blocked humanitarian access to the area.
Numerous refugees in Yunnan have told Human Rights Watch about their fear of forced return by the Chinese authorities. In August 2011, a 25-year-old Kachin from Zinlum said: “I don’t feel secure here at all because we are still on the border and too close to the Burma side. I worry as the fighting continues, if the Chinese don’t accept us, where will we go? Where can we live? We don’t know answers to these questions and it makes me worry.”
A 36-year-old woman who fled to Yunnan on June 15 said, “We think the China side is safer than the Burma side, and that is why we moved here.” A 29-year-old carpenter from Zinlum added: “We all want to go back to the village. I can’t tell what will happen and when we will be able to go back. If we could return now, we would, but it’s unsafe.”
The opposition Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) worked with the Chinese authorities to facilitate the returns. Hundreds were transported on buses on August 22 to a makeshift camp a few miles outside Maijayang, in a KIO-controlled area of Kachin State, while the refugees’ belongings were carried on trucks. Hundreds of other refugees were transported to Burmese-government-controlled areas outside Namkham, Kachin aid workers told Human Rights Watch. The KIO communicated to the refugees an option to return to either KIO- or Burmese-government territory, warning that the KIO could not ensure protection if the refugees decided to return to government-controlled territory. Neither the KIO nor the Chinese authorities gave the refugees the option to stay in China.
The KIO is setting up new camps in territory under its control in Kachin State, but the camps are still inadequate. In at least one case new arrivals are being housed in an abandoned building formerly used by a logging company. The forced returns come during the height of the rainy season, complicating transportation and humanitarian aid delivery.
In June, Human Rights Watch released a 68-page report, “Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province,” estimating that 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin refugees and asylum seekers were in squalid, improvised camps in Yunnan that were largely isolated from international humanitarian aid due to restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities. Most of the refugees had fled wartime abuses in Burma such as forced labor, killings, rape, and torture by the Burmese army, or the threat of abuses.
There are over 85 camps of internally displaced people in Kachin State, housing an estimated 75,000 people, who lack adequate humanitarian aid. Approximately 16 of the camps, in KIO-controlled areas, are already home to at least 55,000 Kachin, and there are food shortages at some of those sites.
All camps in KIO territory are inaccessible to UN agencies because of restrictions imposed by President Thein Sein’s office under the pretense of security concerns. Local Kachin-led organizations have attempted to fill the gap, providing food, clothing, shelter, and medicine despite limited resources. Assistance from UN agencies and other humanitarian organizations is provided regularly to displaced Kachin in 70 locations in government-controlled areas, but that too remains inadequate due to limited resources and the blockage of assistance.
“Adding thousands more Kachin to the camps in Burma will only compound the crisis for internally displaced people in Kachin State,” Frelick said. “President Thein Sein urgently needs to let the aid agencies reach everyone who needs their help.”
Background In June 2011, hostilities broke out in northern Burma between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near a Chinese-led hydropower dam in Kachin State. The fighting ended a 17-year ceasefire agreement between Burma and the Kachin Independence Organization and led to the displacement of over 75,000 Kachin. The Burmese army forcibly displaced thousands of civilians who fled to KIO- or government-controlled territory in Burma and into China. Human Rights Watch documented how since June 2011 the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, and pillaged properties. Burmese soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations, raped Kachin women, used antipersonnel mines, and conscripted forced laborers on the front lines, including children as young as 14.
Displaced Kachin have received inadequate protection in both Burma and China. In the last year Human Rights Watch documented several cases of refoulement (forced return) by the Chinese authorities, including two instances in which the Chinese authorities ordered an estimated 300 Kachin refugees to return to Burma. In some cases since the war began, the Chinese authorities have also rejected Kachin asylum seekers at the border, forcing their return to the conflict zone.
Human Rights Watch uses the term “refugee” for Kachin who have entered China since June 2011 because all have fled armed conflict and rights abuses in Kachin State and would face serious threats to their lives if returned to Kachin State. China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other international human rights treaties that prohibit the forced return “in any manner whatsoever” of refugees to places where their “life or freedom” would be threatened on account of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion.” Nonrefoulement is the cornerstone of refugee protection and is foundational to China’s legal obligations toward refugees.