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Kachin refugees who fled the ongoing ethnic conflict in northernmost Burma to live in temporary shelters in southwestern China’s Yunnan Province have started to return home due to growing pressure from the Chinese authorities.
There are an estimated 4,000 Kachin civilians who crossed over the border to seek refuge in China after fighting between the government and ethnic rebel Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) resumed in June last year.
Around 700 have already been resettled in KIO-controlled camps over the past few days, Kachin relief worker Mai Li Awng told The Irrawaddy, with another wave of 600 refugees arriving in Kachin State on Wednesday. She said that Chinese soldiers and police are rushing the return of refugees.
“The Chinese authorities destroyed all shelters immediately after the refugees left them. Some refugees haven’t gone back to Kachin and were waiting to return home, but their huts were already destroyed by Chinese soldiers,” said Mai Li Awng.
“The refugees feel sad about that. They feel that they are not welcome.”
Another group of refugees returned to the KIO-controlled Nya Naung Pan Camp in Mashi Township, southern Kachin State, near the border with northern Shan State, said Mai Li Awng. However, the total number of returnees was not immediately available.
“The elderly and young children are vulnerable groups and get sick when they get wet from the rain,” said Mai Li Awng. The refugees will be looked after by the KIO and local non-governmental and community-based organizations.
There are more than 2,000 refugees remaining in three temporary shelters in China, according to local reports. They will also be forced to return home and will require local assistance upon arrival.
More than 60,000 people have been displaced because of hostilities between the government and KIO in northern Burma, claim humanitarian groups, with most remaining displaced families living in rebel-controlled territory.
Although government negotiators have held several rounds of peace talks with KIO leaders over the past few months, there has been little progress towards a ceasefire. The KIO is one of the strongest ethnic armed groups in Burma with an estimated 15,000 fighting troops.
The Chinese authorities explained that they were repatriating the refugees as they have no agreement with the United Nations to provide shelters on their territory. They said that thousands of the displaced have lived on their land for over a year and so now it is time for them to return.
Human Rights Watch reported in June that forcing Kachin refugees to return to the conflict zone would put them at great risk and create a pervasive fear of forced relocations among those who remain in Yunnan Province.