China must stop the forced return of thousands of ethnic Kachin refugees to war-torn northern Burma where lives remain at risk from the ongoing ethnic conflict, said Human Rights Watch (HRW).
Security forces in Yunnan Province, southwestern China, have began repatriating some of the 4,000 refugees who fled fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Burmese government to live in makeshift camps over the border.
At least 1,000 have already been sent back with their temporary shelters dismantled immediately after departure. Humanitarian groups warn that many face the threat of torture, rape, forced labor and death should they return to their former homes.
“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, HRW Refugee Program director. “China should urgently change course and provide temporary protection for the refugees in Yunnan Province.”
Those repatriated this week were evicted from the dozen-or-so makeshift camps where they had lived since the current conflict erupted in June 2011. Last month, authorities in Yunnan Province visited Kachin refugees and informed them they were no longer welcome in China and had to return to Burma.
A Kachin National Organization (KNO) statement confirmed that 732 Kachin refugees from 156 households in Yang Lu and Lau Hpai refugee camps were forcibly relocated to Lana Zup camp in KIO-controlled territory in Kachin State on Thursday.
“Many local Chinese police officers were escorting and guarding along the borders whilst forced relocations have started this morning,” read the statement. “The Chinese police have also arrested journalists who took photographs and confiscated their cameras.”
Conditions for those sent back to Burma appears perilous with around 65,000 internally displaced people (IDPs) already uprooted in Kachin State. Aye Win, the UN’s chief information officer for Burma, revealed to The Irrawaddy last week that an estimated 25,000 of these “have not been reached by regular UN supplies.”
And prospects that any of these IDPs will be able to return to their old homes appear slim as the year-old conflict shows little sign of abating. Despite several rounds of peace talks between the two sides over the past few months, there has been little progress towards a ceasefire.
“We all want to go back to the village,” a 29-year-old carpenter from Zinlum told HRW. “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 KNO claims that China is contravening its own Exit-Entry Administration Law, passed on June 30, of which Article 45 states: “An alien who applies for status as a refugee may stay in China with a temporary identity certificate issued by a public security organ during the screening of his or her application.”
The new legislation would bring Beijing in line with the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees.
“The Chinese central government is in favor of accepting vulnerable refugees [but] the Chinese Ruili local government forced the relocation of the refugees to lessen their burden [which] is a crime and violation of the newly passed Exit-Entry Administration Law,” said the KNO.
The KIO is setting up new camps in its territory but observers say that supplies are dwindling and humanitarian agencies only have limited access. The forced returns come during the height of the rainy season, complicating transportation and aid delivery.
“Adding thousands more Kachin to the camps in Burma will only compound the crisis for [IDPs] in Kachin State,” added Frelick. “President Thein Sein urgently needs to let the aid agencies reach everyone who needs their help.”