Human Rights Watch is appealing to the Chinese government over their recent actions related to ethnic Kachin refugees from Burma who have sought refuge in China. The international human rights organization said that the Chinese government carried out forced returns of at least 4,000 ethnic Kachin refugees to Burma without having provided the Kachin refugees a process for determining their claims to refugee status. Instead, HRW says that the Chinese government summarily declared that the Kachin were not refugees and continued to deny them access to the United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR).
HRW also says that the Chinese authorities asserted without basis that the conflict between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State had “subsided”; the group is deeply concerned that the Chinese government forcibly returned ethnic Kachin refugees to a conflict zone in violation of their rights under international law.
Human Rights Watch urged the Chinese government to ensure that Kachin refugees are treated in accordance with international law by not being forcibly returned to Burma and by having access to humanitarian assistance. It is also imperative that the Chinese government permit the UN refugee agency access to conduct refugee status determinations or institute its own process in accordance with international law, HRW claims.
If China continues to deny a role for the UN refugee agency, HRW says that it will need to promptly develop and implement its own refugee status determination procedures, including standards and practices consistent with international law. In the meantime, they ask that China act in accordance with its international obligations, including by ensuring that future Kachin and other refugees are permitted into China, are provided adequate assistance, and are not deported without a proper refugee status determination.
“Rather than honoring international law on refugees, the Chinese government seems to want to rewrite the rules,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director at Human Rights Watch. “As China creates its own refugee status determination process in the coming years, it’s imperative that international standards be upheld, not ignored.”
In the letter to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs, the organization sites their report from June 2012 “Isolated in Yunnan,” about the treatment of the estimated 7,000 to 10,000 refugees who had entered Yunnan Province in China since June 2011, fleeing the fighting in Kachin State inside Burma. In that report, HRW commended the Chinese government for having generally allowed the refugees to enter China and remain in Yunnan. However, HRW also documented the unwillingness of the Chinese government to screen and register the new arrivals as refugees or to provide them with adequate food, shelter, and other humanitarian assistance.
A 36-year-old woman who fled to Yunnan on June 15 told HRW, “We think the China side is safer than the Burma side, and that is why we moved here.” A 29-year-old carpenter from Zinlum added: “We all want to go back to the village. 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.”
Sophie Richardson, Asia Director at HRW, addressed these concerns in HRW’s letter to the Chinese authorities: “We are very concerned by your government’s assertion that these people are not refugees when your government has failed to establish or implement any procedure for screening asylum seekers and determining the validity of their claims to refugee status. Nor do the facts support claims by your government that the Kachin returned voluntarily to Kachin State.” She added that “the decision to return must be freely chosen by each individual refugee based on full information about conditions in the country of origin.”
The 1951 Refugee Convention and the 1984 Convention against Torture and Other Cruel, Inhuman or Degrading Treatment or Punishment, both of which have been ratified by China, provide that refugees cannot be returned to a place where their lives or freedom would be threatened and that no person can be returned to a place where they would face the prospect of being tortured. This means that a person seeking asylum cannot be forcibly returned unless they have been determined not to face these risks by a fair and impartial refugee status determination (RSD) procedure.
In countries such as China where no such procedure exists, governments normally
allow UNHCR to carry out its mandate by performing refugee status determinations.
Displaced Kachin have received inadequate protection in both Burma and China. In some cases since the war began, the Chinese authorities have also rejected Kachin asylum seekers at the border, forcing their return to the conflict zone, according to HRW’s report.
The forced returns put the refugees at grave risk and created a pervasive fear of forced return among the Kachin refugees who remain in Yunnan. A 25-year-old refugee in Yunnan told HRW, “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 don’t accept us, where will we go? Where can we live?”