“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,” said Sophie Richardson, China director at HRW. “China has no legitimate reason to push them back to Burma or to leave them without food and shelter.”
The 68-page report, “Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province,” describes how at least 7,000 to 10,000 ethnic Kachin refugees have fled war and abuses in Burma since June 2011, seeking refuge in southwestern China. The report is based on more than 100 interviews with refugees, displaced persons in Burma, victims of abuses, relief workers, and others. The report documents how these ethnic Kachin refugees are scattered across more than a dozen makeshift settlements lacking adequate shelter, food, potable water, sanitation, and basic health care.
Most children have no access to schools. In search of income, adults seek day labor and are vulnerable to exploitation by local employers. Other Kachin refugees have been subject to arbitrary roadside drug testing, arbitrary fines, and prolonged and abusive detention by the Chinese authorities, all without due process or judicial oversight. In addition, some refugees have been refused entry at the border, and local Chinese officials, on the orders of the central authorities, have forced others back to conflict areas in Burma.
In June 2011, hostilities broke out in northern Burma between the Burmese army and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA) near a Chinese-led hydropower dam in Kachin State. The fighting ended a 17-year ceasefire agreement and led to the displacement of an estimated 75,000 Kachin. Displaced civilians fled to KIA or government-controlled territory in Burma and into China.
While the Chinese central government and Yunnan provincial authorities have generally allowed Kachin refugees to enter and stay in China since June 2011, HRW documented two instances, involving an estimated 300 people, of Chinese authorities ordering Kachin refugees to return to Burma. Chinese authorities have also rejected Kachin asylum seekers at the border, forcing their return to the conflict zone.
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?”
China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol as well as other international human rights treaties that provide protections for refugees and asylum seekers. The Refugee Convention prohibits the forced return “in any manner whatsoever” of refugees to places where their “life or freedom” would be threatened on account of their “race, religion, nationality, membership of a particular social or political opinion.” Nonrefoulement is the cornerstone of refugee protection and is foundational to China’s legal obligations toward refugees.
“The Chinese government is not only legally obligated, but fully capable of temporarily protecting Kachin refugees and meeting their basic needs,” Richardson said.
While displaced Kachin in Burma have received a limited amount of aid from local and international agencies, including from three UN convoys between March and June 2012, the Chinese government has not itself provided any assistance to the Kachin refugees in Yunnan, nor has it allowed the UN High Commissioner for Refugees or other major humanitarian organizations access to this population. The only assistance provided has come from private and local Kachin aid networks operating in Yunnan and Kachin State.
While refugees expressed gratitude for this assistance, it has been inadequate to meet their needs. A Kachin woman, 51, explained her difficulty providing food for her family: “As soon as we arrived [in China] there was no food so we just shared the little we had,” she said. “The war will last a long time and make things very difficult for us. We are far away from the village and we cannot get food. Living here is a very difficult situation.”
A Kachin aid worker in Yunnan Province said: “We are facing problems in supporting the needs of the refugees. We are nearly out of money to buy food and medicine…. We have supported them for nine months already with the support of the Kachin community, some communities from Burma, and faith groups. Over the last nine months, we got very limited funds from international nongovernmental organizations. Now local people have limited money to support them again.”
While the government of China has allowed most of the refugees to stay in Yunnan, some have been forced back to the conflict zone or denied entry into China at the border. Many Kachin originally fled severe abuses by the Burmese army – including attacks on villages, killings, rape, and the use of abusive forced labor.
Some refugees described returning to the conflict zone in Burma because of inadequate humanitarian support in Yunnan. A 33-year-old Kachin woman said she felt compelled to return to her home in Kachin State – the site of intense fighting – because of the lack of food to feed her family in Yunnan: “What money we had brought [to Yunnan], we had already spent, and we were at a relative’s house and it is not good to stay a long time. It was difficult, so we had to come back to Burma.”
“Many Kachin refugees have already endured terrible abuses and war in Burma, only to settle into a life of dire struggle in Yunnan,” Richardson said. “Until it is safe for the Kachin to return home, the Chinese government has a responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being.”