China Urged to Protect Kachin Refugees

As China’s relationship with Myanmar [aka Burma] is being examined by Myanmar’s parliament, human rights groups are urging China to safeguard Kachin refugees. The Kachin minority ethnic group has been fighting for more autonomy in Myanmar in a year-long conflict. From The Voice of America:

The report says as many as 10,000 Kachin people have fled the conflict for China’s southern Yunnan province, where they are in desperate need of humanitarian aid.

Human Rights Watch says China has “generally tolerated” refugees from Kachin, but says they lack adequate water, food and other basic supplies. It also said Kachin people are routinely harassed by local authorities and exploited by Chinese employers.

The group is urging China to provide temporary protection and allow humanitarian agencies “unhindered access” to the refugees. It also wants Beijing to adhere to international treaties that prohibit forced returns of refugees.

At least 60,000 Kachin people have been displaced since June 2011, when fighting broke out between the military and the Kachin Independence Army, ending a 17-year ceasefire.

While China is allowing some refugees to stay until the violence ends, reports say at least 300 refugees have been detained or sent back to Myanmar. The Associated Press adds:

The report said that while China has generally let Kachin refugees stay, it had ordered about 300 people in two groups to return to Myanmar about a year ago.

In Beijing, Foreign Ministry spokesman Hong Lei said the report of refugees being turned back was inaccurate. He told a news conference that the refugees had entered China to escape the conflict and returned when it had ended. He said they had been provided with humanitarian assistance while in China.

The refugees currently depend on limited support provided by local aid organizations, churches and a few small international organizations in southwestern China, according to Human Rights Watch. All of them are short of funding and resources.

He said the Chinese government has been reluctant to send aid to the refugees because it didn’t want to disturb its friendly relations with Myanmar’s military, which still wields much power despite giving way to an elected, nominally civilian government last year.

According to the BBC, China is helping to mediate the conflict between the Burmese government and Kachin rebels:

“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,” Sophie Richardson, China director at Human Rights Watch, said in a statement.

“China has no legitimate reason to push them back to Burma or to leave them without food and shelter.”

HRW based their report on more than 100 interviews with refugees and relief workers, among others.

The state of Kachin is also the location of the controversial Myitsone dam. Although China and Myanmar have strong ties, the Kachin refugees and poppy cultivation seem to be points of contention between the two countries. Reuters reports:

A Yunnan province official said in March that authorities had been providing humanitarian help to the displaced and had helped mediate talks between the rebels and Myanmar’s government.

While China has strong business and trade ties with Myanmar, it has long looked with wariness at its poor and unstable southern neighbor, and has repeatedly called on the country to ensure stability along their vast and remote border.

Chinese media on Tuesday cited police minister Meng Jianzhu as saying poppy cultivation in northern Myanmar had bounced back and that drugs were flooding into China from that part of the world, with heroin seizures up 55 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.

Diplomats say the conflict in Kachin state is one of the biggest tests for Myanmar’s new civilian government’s reform effort.

See also the full Human Rights Watch report Isolated in Kachin. Read more about China’s relations with Myanmar, aka Burma, via CDT.