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China forcibly returns Myanmese refugees to hostile areas

NEW YORK (SE): In a mysterious deal worked out between the Kachin Independent Organisation (KIO) in the Union of Myanmar and authorities in the province of Yunnan, China, up to 1,000 Myanmese refugees sheltering on the Chinese side of the border from the civil war in the Kachin state have been forcibly repatriated since August 19.

The New York-based Human Rights Watch said in a press release on August 24 that a further 4,000 are in imminent danger of being forced to follow.

The agency claims that the homes of most of these people are still in the grips of the violent civil war being waged by government forces against the Kachin Independent Army and are too dangerous for them to return to.

It says that as a result, they will be forced to join the estimated 55,000 internally displaced persons who are already taking shelter in churches or other centres set up by the KIO in territories under its control or the 75,000 huddled in places organised by the government authorities.

More than a dozen makeshift camps exist in Maiyayang in Yunnan and had an estimated population of around 10,000 Myanmese refugees.

Kin Omar, from Mae Sot in Thailand, reported at the Foreign Correspondents Club in Hong Kong in 2008, when trouble was brewing over the construction by Chinese interests of the controversial hydro-electric plant in Kachin state, that the provincial government in Yunnan was making preparations for an exodus of refugees from Myanmar.

Human Rights Watch says, “All camps in the KIO areas are mostly inaccessible to United Nations agencies because of restrictions placed upon them by the office of the current president of Myanmar, Thein Sein, under what it calls the pretence of security concerns.

“Local Kachin-led organisations have attempted to fill the gap, providing food, clothing, shelter and medicine, despite limited resources,” the report says.

However, Human Rights Watch reports that while border guards turned a blind eye to people drifting into China, the government has done nothing to help them with provision of food, housing, water or medical supplies.

In a 68-page report released in June this year, Human Rights Watch described the camps as being isolated in Yunnan.

It says that an estimated 10,000 refugees and asylum seekers were living in squalid, impoverished camps, largely isolated from international humanitarian aid due to restrictions imposed by the Chinese authorities.

The KIO has worked with the Yunnan government to facilitate the return of the refugees to territory it controls and on August 22 hundreds were transported on busses with their belongings carried in trucks.

UCA News quoted Father Stephen Zaw as saying, “It was like hell here yesterday when Chinese police came to guard the refugee camps and force refugees to leave.”

He added, “Some of the families fled the camps on the previous night for fear they would be forced to leave by police.”

One witness told UCA News that police had confiscated cameras from people photographing the enforced exodus.

The KIO is reported to have given people the option of coming to camps in its territory or going to areas under the Myanmese government, although it said that it could not guarantee their safety outside of its own area.

Nevertheless, hundreds seem to have taken up that option.

In both places the camps are not adequate, as it is the middle of the rainy season and movement is difficult and the provision for water or food, as well as medical services, is problematic.

The report quotes a 25-year-old Kachin from Zinlum as saying, “I don’t feel secure here at all, because we are still on the border and too close to the Burma side. I worry, as the fighting continues. If the Chinese do not accept us, where will we go? Where can we live? We don’t know the answers to these questions.”

Human Rights Watch is calling on the Myanmese president to allow international aid agencies into the Kachin state, as it calls the situation critical and is asking the government to act with urgency.

The New York-based human rights watchdog says that it uses the term refugee to describe the Kachin people who have fled into China since June 2011, “Because all have fled armed conflict and rights abuses in Kachin state and would face serious threats to their lives if returned to Kachin state.”

China is party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1967 Protocol, as well as other human rights treaties that prohibit the forced return of refugees to places where their life or freedom “would be threatened on account of their race, religion, nationality or membership of a particular social or political party.”

Since June 2011, the Kachin people have been fleeing attacks against their villages, razed homes, pillaged properties and a military that has been documented as using torture to extract information and rape as a weapon of war.


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