China Forces Kachin Refugees Back to Myanmar

Thousands of Kachin refugees are being forcibly returned from China to Myanmar (Burma), according to Human Rights Watch.

Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers have been fighting against Burmese government troops in Kachin State since a 17-year-old ceasefire collapsed between the two sides in June 2011. Some 10,000 Burmese fled to China’s Yunnan Province, living in makeshift refugee camps or other settlements. Another 50,000-plus people displaced by the fighting have remained within Burma.

KIA is the political arm of the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO), which confirms that China has pressured it to take back refugees from China, according to the Irrawaddy news magazine. KIO is building a camp within Burma 16 km from the Chinese border to house those returning.

The Chinese Foreign Ministry denies that China is forcing the refugees to return to the war zone, saying they are willingly returning, according to the New York Times. China also denies that some are refugees.

My take is that the Foreign Ministry lacks credibility on this point. The Chinese government refuses to allow the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) and international aid organizations access to the Burmese refugees.

China is a signatory to the 1951 Refugee Convention and 1967 Protocol Relating to the Status of Refugees. As such, it is required to give the UN Refugee Agency access to persons seeking recognition as refugees. It is supposed to put in place procedures to individually screen such persons to determine whether they are refugees. And it is supposed to abide by the principle of “non-refoulement,” meaning it may not expel or return a refugee to territories where his or her life or freedom would be threatened. China has not lived up to any of these legal obligations.

On June 30, 2012, the Standing Committee of the National People’s Congress enacted a new Exit-Entry Administration Law. For the first time, it adds to domestic law provisions for refugee screening and protection. But the government’s treatment of the Burmese refugees does not bode well for how the new law will be implemented.

Ethnic minorities have been fighting for independence or autonomy since after Myanmar gained independence in 1948. President Thein Sein has promised that democracy will replace the country’s military dictatorship. He espouses reconciliation with ethnic minorities. But Human Rights Watch report accuses the Burmese army of recent attacks on Kachin villages, killings, rape, and abusive forced labor. Both the army and the KIA have used antipersonnel mines during the hostilities.

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