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(Bangkok) – In late August 2012, the Chinese government forcibly returned at least 4,000 ethnic Kachin refugees to a conflict zone in northern Burma in violation of international law, Human Rights Watch said in a letter to the Chinese Ministry of Foreign Affairs today.

The Chinese government carried out the forced returns without having provided the Kachin refugees a process for determining their claims to refugee status. Instead, the government summarily declared that the Kachin were not refugees, continued to deny them access to the United Nations refugee agency, and asserted without basis that the conflict between the Burmese government and the Kachin Independence Army in Kachin State had “subsided.”

“Rather than honoring international law on refugees, the Chinese government seems to want to rewrite the rules,” said Bill Frelick, Refugee Program director. “As China creates its own refugee status determination process in the coming years, it’s imperative that international standards be upheld, not ignored.”

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. The government should also permit the UN refugee agency to conduct refugee status determinations or institute its own process in accordance with international law.

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 between Burma and the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and led to the displacement of over 75,000 Kachin. The Burmese army forcibly displaced thousands of civilians who fled to KIO- or government-controlled territory in Burma and into China. Human Rights Watch documented how since June 2011 the Burmese army has attacked Kachin villages, razed homes, and pillaged properties. Burmese soldiers have threatened and tortured civilians during interrogations, raped Kachin women, used antipersonnel mines, and conscripted forced laborers on the front lines, including children as young as 14.

Displaced Kachin have received inadequate protection in both Burma and China. In the last year Human Rights Watch documented several cases of refoulement (forced return) by the Chinese authorities, including two instances in which the Chinese authorities ordered an estimated 300 Kachin refugees to return to Burma. 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.

Human Rights Watch uses the term “refugee” for Kachin who have entered 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 a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol, as well as other international human rights treaties that prohibit 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.

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