Mai Ja Yang, BURMA — Since the beginning of this week a large number of refugees have been forced to cross back into Burma from China, where they had sought shelter following the outbreak of fighting between the Kachin Independence Organization (KIO) and Burmese government troops last year.
At least 3,000 refugees had been living in series of temporary camps in Nongdao (also spelled Naung Tau) opposite the Burmese government controlled town of Muse in Shan state until earlier this week when many started to leave following pressure from Chinese authorities. Most of the refugees in Nongdao hail from KIO territory in northern Shan state and are predominately ethnic Kachin, although some are Palaung and Shan.
The Kachin National Organization (KNO), an exile political group, issued an urgent appeal on Wednesday heavily criticizing the decision by the Chinese authorities to send back the refugees. According to the KNO as of Tuesday evening at least 732 refugees had already been sent back. It is understood that the entire population of the camps at Nongdao will eventually be deported by the end of the week.
While some refugees already left on their own earlier this week according to sources on the ground Chinese authorities began on Wednesday to uses buses to transport the refugees back to the border. The refugee's belongings were sent using cattle trucks. The deportations are being carried out following a series of meeting that Chinese authorities had with the KIO in which the KIO were pressured to publicly call on the refugees to return to Burma.
Although the KIO has prepared a new area in its territory where these families will stay, the refugees are leaving China very reluctantly as the new camp is located in Kachin state at Lana Zup Ja far from their homes and farms. A sharp contrast with Nongdao which is close enough to their former villages that some of the refugees could cross back and harvest their crops periodically, although at some serious risk. Another serious drawback to the new camp is that it is also extremely close to a nearby Burma army base.
A similar cluster of temporary camps at La Ying, opposite the Burmese government controlled town of Loije (also spelled Lwe Je, Lwegel) that houses an additional 3,000 refugees will also be shut down at the end of this month, again at the request of Chinese authorities. Most of the refugees in La Ying are expected move to a new camp in KIO territory located just outside of Mai Ja Yang. Prior to their having fled to China, a majority of those living at La Ying were small scale farmers from N’Mawk (also spelled Momauk) township in eastern Kachins state.
Although preparations for this move have been under way for a few weeks many of the refugees in La Ying are reluctant to cross back into Burma for safety reasons and because they fear they will have no way of supporting their family. While staying at La Ying some of the refugees had found work in nearby Chinese sugar cane farms but these jobs will likely be abandoned once they move back to Burma.
In a report issued in late June, New York based Human Rights Watch criticized Chinese authorities for their handling of the influx of Kachin refugees, amid strong indicators from China that the refugees would be sent back very soon. ''Beijing has generally tolerated Kachin refugees staying in Yunnan, but now needs to meet its international obligations of non-refoulement” said Phil Robertson the group's deputy director for said upon release of the 68 page report.
Following publication of HRW's report Chinese authorities strongly denied the allegations of mistreatment and even went so far as to deny that there were any refugees at all. "There has been no significant influx or overstay of refugees since armed clashes broke out between Myanmar government forces and the ethnic Kachin Independence Army in June last year", an official from Yunnan told the state run Xinhua news agency in early July.
Despite the stringent denials, Chinese authorities appear to have to take a few steps to address some of HRW concerns as they have sought to close the camps in stages to allow for the KIO and local aid groups to deal with the influx of the people.
China's new rules governing refugees good on paper
On June 30, 2012 the Standing Committee of China’s National People’s Congress implemented new rules covering the treatment of refugees, a symbolic milestone in China where previously domestic legislation completely ignored the rights of refugees. Article 45 of the new Exit-Entry Administration Law states:
“An alien who applies for status as a refugee may stay in China with a temporary identity certificate issued by a public security organ during the screening of his or her application. An alien who is determined to be a refugee may stay and reside in China with a refugee identity certificate issued by a public security organ.”
In theory the new rules could be significant because Chinese legislation finally reflects Beijing's obligations under international refugee protocols which China is a signatory too. Despite the new rules however local Yunnan authorities have continued to regard refugees in the same extremely unfavourable manner as they did by before the rules went into effect.