At least 7,000 to 10,000 Kachin refugees from Burma have sought refuge across the border in Yunnan Province in southwestern China, according to a Human Rights Watch report released on Tuesday.
“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 68-page report, “Isolated in Yunnan: Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province,” describes how 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, said HRW.
Refugees in Yunnan told Human Rights Watch they had received no humanitarian assistance from the government and major humanitarian agencies have had no access to the refugees since they began arriving in June 2011.
The refugees are scattered across more than a dozen makeshift settlements lacking adequate shelter, food, potable water, sanitation, and basic health care, said a summary of the report.
“All of the Kachin refugees with whom Human Rights Watch spoke expressed a desire to eventually return to Kachin State, but not before the conflict ends,” it said.
China is a party to the 1951 Refugee Conventions and its 1967 Protocol as well as other international human rights treaties that provide protections for refugees and asylum seekers. However, China has no law or procedure for determining refugee status and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has not been given access to conduct refugee status determinations; under international law, the lack of a formal recognition mechanism does not negate the fact that someone is a refugee, said HRW.
“The Chinese government has permitted most Kachin refugees to enter and remain in Yunnan, and has allowed a number of small local nongovernmental organizations to provide assistance,” said the report summary. “Local authorities have interviewed the refugees about their reasons for leaving Burma and gathered their basic biographical information. But the Chinese government has not fulfilled its obligations either to provide government assistance or to allow UNHCR and other humanitarian agencies to reach the refugees and provide them food and other necessities.”
While thousands of refugees remain in Yunnan, not all have been allowed to cross the border or stay in China, it said.
Some Kachin refugee families have returned to Burma from Yunnan because of pressure from Chinese authorities or the lack of adequate humanitarian aid, said the summary.
HRW urged the Chinese government to establish a temporary protection regime for the Kachin refugees that allows them to remain and enjoy basic human rights in Yunnan until they can return in safety and dignity to Burma in accordance with international standards.
Under no circumstances should refugees in Yunnan or asylum seekers at the border be forced back to face serious risks arising from conditions of armed conflict or a well-founded fear of persecution, it said. China should also allow access to refugees by local and international organizations, including UNHCR, to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to the refugees.
To date, private Kachin aid networks operating in Yunnan have taken the lead in providing humanitarian assistance for the refugees. They have been supported by the Burmese and Kachin community in China and abroad, Christian Kachin churches in Yunnan and in Burma, local aid organizations, and a few international organizations, said HRW.
The funding and resources of these groups are very limited, it said. The Chinese government has not permitted international humanitarian agencies to operate in Yunnan, so they have focused on delivering aid to the internally displaced person (IDP) population in Burma.
On three occasions—in early December 2011, late March 2012, and early June 2012—Burmese authorities granted UN agencies access to IDPs in Kachin State conflict zones, said HRW. While the U.N. convoys were only able to deliver a limited amount of aid to a fraction of the IDP population, permitting this access was a step in the right direction. The Chinese government has not allowed comparable access to the refugees in Yunnan Province, and should do so immediately, HRW said.
For a full copy of the report, go to http://www.hrw.org/