Authorities in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan have forcibly returned at least 1,000 ethnic Kachin refugees to northern Burma after they fled from armed conflict, abuses, and lack of basic humanitarian supplies, a U.S.-based rights group said on Friday.
Thousands more were at risk of immediate forced repatriation across the border from Yunnan, where they are currently being looked after by nongovernment and religious aid groups, New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a statement.
The group called on the Chinese government to "urgently change course," and to honor its obligations to refugees under international law.
Official Chinese media denied the allegations on Friday.
"China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone rife with Burmese army abuses," HRW's refugee program director Bill Frelick said. "China should urgently change course and provide temporary protection for the refugees in Yunnan Province."
The Kachin refugees were expelled from around 12 makeshift camps in Yunnan, where they had been living 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," HRW said.
The group quoted Kachin refugees as saying that they feared for their families' safety if they were forced to return home, where fighting in northern Burma between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese military forces has created a regional humanitarian crisis.
"We think the China side is safer than the Burma side, and that is why we moved here," HRW quoted a 36-year-old woman who fled to Yunnan on June 15 as saying.
Meanwhile, a 29-year-old carpenter from Zinlum said: "If we could return now, we would, but it’s unsafe."
An estimated 75,000 people have been displaced, while both sides have been implicated in the use of land mines and child soldiers, in violation of international law.
A 17-year ceasefire agreement ended in June of last year when Burmese forces moved in to close a KIA militia camp, rekindling the conflict. Tens of thousands have been displaced since then.
The conflict has intensified in recent months, with stepped-up attacks from both sides. The KIA killed four government officials in April and blasted multiple rail lines, and government forces reportedly shelled several KIA bases in a recent helicopter attack.
China's foreign ministry has refused to define the Kachin people in Yunnan as refugees.
The official media has admitted, however, that 4,000 people from Kachin are currently in Yunnan, because they "fled conflict."
The Global Times, which has close links with the ruling Chinese Communist Party, quoted Burmese consular officials in Kunming, Yunnan's provincial capital, as saying that claims from the KIA of forced repatriation were "wrong."
It said in a report on Friday that officials from the Yunnan government and the border town of Ruili had denied receiving any orders to put pressure on the refugees to leave.
According to HRW, while the Chinese government has provided sanctuary to an estimated 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin in Yunnan, the authorities have failed to provide them with any aid.
"The Chinese government has denied United Nations and international humanitarian agencies much-needed access to these refugees," the group said.
"Those returned to Burma will be relegated to living in camps for internally displaced people that lack adequate aid and are currently isolated from U.N. agencies because the Burmese government has blocked humanitarian access to the area," it said.
Reported by Luisetta Mudie.