The Chinese authorities have banned officials of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) from accessing Kachin refugees who are being forced back home into war-torn northern Burma.
More than 2,000 refugees who took shelter in China’s southwestern Yunnan Province have been deported to Burma since last week. Aid workers, Human Rights Watch and the United States have all urged Beijing to cease the forced repatriation as hostilities between Burmese government troops and Kachin rebels are escalating.
Vivian Tan, the spokesperson for the UNHCR in Asia, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that the Chinese authorities did not grant permission for her organization to reach returning Kachin civilians.
“The Chinese authorities said that they can manage the situation and don’t need extra help from outside,” she said. “We understand that China doesn’t recognize Kachin population who fled into China as refugees.”
Tan said that the UNHCR has been trying to access the refugees from the Chinese side but their efforts have been thwarted. “So we don’t really know what is happening on the China side,” she added.
Hostilities have been building in recent weeks with fresh offensives by Burmese government troops around the Hpakant jade mining region and the rebel’s Laiza headquarters where thousands of Kachin refugees are currently taking shelter.
Capt Hla Dwell, of Kachin Independence Army (KIA) Brigade 2 in the frontline, claimed that around 70 Burmese soldiers were killed by a heavy explosion in the Shrawng Kha area of Hpakant at 5:30 pm on Wednesday evening when a mortar shell landed on a store containing explosive materials and fuel.
Contacted by The Irrawaddy on Friday, a police official in Hpakant confirmed the incident but declined to verify if the KIA’s casuality figures were accurate.
Nevetheless, Tan revealed that her relief team received permission to access the area from the Burmese side three days ago and they are now planning go and find out what is exactly happening in the conflict zone.
US State Department spokesman Patrick Ventrell urged China on Thursday to abide by its international obligations on the treatment of refugees.
“The US believes that refugees should only return home by their own choice and in conditions of safety and dignity,” he told reporters at a news conference.
La Rip, head of the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for Internally Displaced Persons in Kachin State, told The Irrawaddy on Friday that local relief groups including the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), the political wing of the KIA, are providing assistance to the displaced including returning refugees.
However, he admitted that, “We will face major problems in helping the refugees if we don’t receive further assistance from nongovernmental organizations [NGOs]. Food is a major problem. If NGO donors like the UN don’t support us, we can’t offer more food to the refugees.”
La Rip said that the UN aid agency visited refugees in KIO-controlled areas in April and provided assistance for two months. But there has been no return visit since then.
Some 1,278 Kachin refugees have returned from China to take shelter in KIA Brigade 3 region alone, around one hour drive east of the state capital Myitkyina, according to La Rip.
Many others, however, returned to different shelters operated by the rebels while some have risked hiding in the jungle due to the difficulty of reaching a KIO-controlled camp. The refugees also lack proper healthcare and their children are denied schooling as there are no teachers or sufficient study materials such as books, pens and pencils, said La Rip.
The UNHCR reported in July that it has built around 2,500 shelters for Kachin civilians displaced by fighting and more than 48,000 have received assistance from the organization in the form of mosquito nets, blankets, tarpaulins and plastic floor mats.
Hostilities between the government and the KIA broke out in June last year. Around 90,000 civilians have been displaced by the fighting so far, according to local community-based relief organizations.