(Bangkok) – Several thousand ethnic Kachin refugees from Burma are isolated in Yunnan, China, where they are at risk of return to a conflict zone and lack needed humanitarian aid. The Chinese government should immediately provide temporary protection and allow United Nations and humanitarian agencies unhindered access to Kachin refugees in Yunnan who have fled wartime abuses in Burma.
“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 Human Rights Watch. “China has no legitimate reason to push them back to Burma or to leave them without food and shelter.”
The 71-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 Kachin refugees in Yunnan described to Human Rights Watch their lack of 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, Human Rights Watch 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 Human Rights Watch, “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 told Human Rights Watch. “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.”
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.”
Human Rights Watch said that concerned governments should support local organizations that are currently providing aid to the refugee population, and should urgently press Chinese authorities to provide unfettered access to the refugees.
Kachin refugees in Yunnan have been subjected to arbitrary drug testing, which in some instances has led to their being sent to abusive “rehabilitation centers.” Every male refugee interviewed by Human Rights Watch was randomly tested for drug use by local authorities, in some cases repeatedly over time, citing it as their second most troublesome difficulty in Yunnan after securing shelter. Upon submitting to humiliating roadside urine tests, refugees who are told they test positive for illegal drug use are given the option to pay unaffordable cash fines on the spot or face incarceration for two years, beginning that day. Two Kachin men interviewed by Human Rights Watch were detained, tested, and sentenced to two years in an abusive Rehabilitation Through Labor center. In detention, they were forced to work in textiles and cutting jade without compensation, and they were subject to cruel, inhuman, and degrading treatment.
“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.”
Selected accounts from “Isolated in Yunnan”
“After they said the villagers had to return to Burma, the soldiers came again and checked to make sure the villagers left. We replied by saying they went back.... Now, everyone has gone back to Burma. Mostly they went back to the village and some went back to the [displaced persons] camps in Burma. It was after two or three days that the soldiers returned to make sure the villagers were going back. The villagers first arrived June 12, [2011,] and the Chinese allowed us to support them until June 15. That is when they came and said they had to return.”
– Chinese village head, Yunnan Province, China, August 2011
“When we go for a bath in the river, the Chinese authorities always harass us. There is a water-well at the [camp] but there are many people and it’s very crowded, so we have to go to the river to take a bath, and when we go the Chinese authorities always stop us and ask us questions. And they always follow us. They follow behind us and they yell things at us. So we do not feel very secure.”
– Kachin refugee, 19, Yunnan Province, China, November 2011
“Our health has changed since we fled. Now we live in a group, side by side, so sicknesses spread quickly. I never had health problems before, but now I always feel weak and tired, and something is wrong with my stomach. I had to go to the doctor but I couldn’t go to the hospital because I don’t have money.... If one child gets sick, every child gets sick, and we don’t have any medicines. The children have diarrhea and colds constantly.”
– Kachin refugee, farmer, Yunnan Province, China, November 2011
“I was tested on August 5, 2011 on the street near the border. They asked me, ‘Where are you from?’ I said I was from Burma. One person was wearing a police uniform, but there were about 10 people total. They had one car and one motorbike. They asked me if I was using drugs. I said no, I wasn’t. They made me pee in a small cup in front of them, and then they put something in the cup and said, ‘This says you use drugs.’ Then they said, ‘You have to eradicate the drugs from yourself. You will go to prison.’ Then they sent me to prison.”
– Kachin refugee, 21, Yunnan Province, China, November 2011
“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 INGOs [international nongovernmental organizations]. Now local people have limited money to support them again.”
– Kachin aid worker in Yunnan Province, China, March 2012