As many as 10,000 ethnic Kachin refugees who fled Myanmar are facing food and water shortages and inadequate sanitation at makeshift camps in China and need support and protection, a human rights group said yesterday.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) said the refugees in Yunnan Province are at risk of being returned to a combat zone and it urged the Chinese government to give them temporary protection and permit the UN and humanitarian agencies free access to them.
The Kachin minority in northern Myanmar has been fighting government forces since June last year, when the authorities sought to shut down a Kachin militia base near a hydropower dam construction project. The hostilities ended a 17-year ceasefire and displaced about 75,000 people.
“Many Kachin refugees have already endured terrible abuses and war in Burma, only to settle into a life of dire struggle in Yunnan,” HRW’s China director Sophie Richardson said in a report.
“Until it is safe for the Kachin to return home, the Chinese government has a responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being,” she said.
Shortages of food and potable water and inadequate shelter, sanitation and medical care are the main problems, HRW says.
“We live in a group, side by side, so sicknesses spread quickly,” a Kachin farmer told HRW researchers. “If one child gets sick, every child gets sick, and we don’t have any medicines. The children have diarrhea and colds constantly.”
The report also says most refugee children in Yunnan have no access to schools and the adults, desperate for paying work, are forced to be day laborers and are at risk of exploitation.
The refugees currently depend on limited support provided by local aid organizations, churches and a few small international organizations in southwestern China, according to HRW. All of them are short of funding and resources.
He said the Chinese government has been reluctant to send aid to the refugees because it did not want to disturb its friendly relations with Myanmar’s military, which still wields much power despite giving way to an elected, nominally civilian government last year.
HRW says that while China has generally let Kachin refugees stay, it ordered about 300 people to return to Myanmar.
“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,” the group says.
HRW says international agreements obligate China not to force back refugees threatened because of their ethnicity, religion or political beliefs, even if China is not a party to those agreements.