‘No Assistance’ for Kachin Refugees

A new report condemns China’s inadequate response to ethnic refugees fleeing fighting in Burma.

Kachin refugees flee to Burma's border with China to escape the fighting, June 14, 2011.
US Campaign for Burma

The Chinese government has flouted international law by failing to provide adequate food, water, and protection to thousands of refugees fleeing conflict-ridden areas in northern Burma, a human rights group said Tuesday.

New York-based Human Rights Watch (HRW) said at least 7,000 to 10,000 refugees had fled across the border to China since clashes between the military and rebels in northern Burma’s Kachin state broke out last June.

The refugees lack access to food, potable water, and healthcare and have not received enough assistance from China, HRW said in the report, titled “Isolated in Yunnan.”

“What we found is a group of refugees in a desperate situation, who have received no humanitarian assistance from the Chinese government since they started arrived in Yunnan in June 2011,” HRW Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson said at a press conference in Bangkok.

“China has not permitted major humanitarian agencies … to assist these refugees either,” he said, including the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), a UN agency that coordinates refugee crisis response worldwide.

Local nongovernmental organizations and religious groups have been supporting the refugees, but are strained far beyond capacity, the group said.

Forced to return

The report accused China of turning some 300 refugees away at the border, in some cases forcing them to return to conflict zones in Burma.

“The Chinese government has generally tolerated Kachin refugees staying in Yunnan, but now needs to meet its international legal obligations to ensure refugees are not returned and that their basic needs are met,” said Sophie Richardson, HRW’s China director.

“China has no legitimate reason to push them back to Burma or to leave them without food and shelter.”
Chinese authorities have also subjected Kachin refugees to roadside drug testing, arbitrary fines, and prolonged and abusive detention, all without due process or judicial oversight, the group said.

HRW’s Robertson urged China to stick to its international commitments to assist refugees.

“China is a party to the 1951 Refugees Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as other international human rights treaties that require China to not only recognize refugees, but also to provide protection to these refugees, and to also cooperate with UNHCR in its operation of its refugee protection mandate,” he said.

Beijing rejected the allegations, disputing the refugee status of the Burmese and dismissing the notion that the government has not provided aid.

“Since early this year, there have been military conflicts between [Burma’s] military government and armed ethnic groups.

Some of the [Burmese] have come to China because of safety issues. They are not refugees,” said Hong Lei, a spokesperson for the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“Moreover, they will return to Myanmar [Burma] as soon as the conflicts end. China has been providing humanitarian aid to those people during their time in China,” he said, using another name for Burma.

Graphic: RFA

Regional violence

Fighting in northern Burma between the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) and Burmese military forces has created a regional humanitarian crisis, displacing an estimated 75,000 people. Both sides have been implicated in the use of landmines and child soldiers, in violation of international rules.

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.

The KIA represents a Kachin ethnic minority centered in the northern Kachin state that is fighting the Burmese regime for greater autonomy.

Reported by RFA’s Burmese service with additional reporting by James Bourne.

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