Prevent forced returns, allow humanitarian agencies unfettered access to displaced communities

(YANGON, January 13, 2017)—The Government of China should ensure protection for thousands of ethnic Kachin civilians fleeing ongoing armed conflict in Myanmar and prevent forced returns, Fortify Rights said today. Chinese state security forces reportedly forced back to Myanmar approximately 4,000 Kachin civilians on January 11, a day after they fled to China to escape fighting in Myanmar’s Kachin State.

“China should provide asylum seekers with sanctuary, not send them into the line of fire,” said Matthew Smith, Chief Executive Officer of Fortify Rights. “The Myanmar military is effectively forcing civilians out of the country while China pushes them back in.”

On January 10, an estimated 4,000 civilians—the majority of whom are women, children, and the elderly—fled Myanmar military air strikes and heavy artillery attacks in the Nagyang area, which is close to Zai Awng/Mungga Zup and Hkau Shau IDP camps in Kachin State. The Joint Strategy Team (JST)—a collective of nine local organizations—reported that villagers from Hkau Shau and displaced civilians from the two nearby internally displaced person (IDP) camps began to cross the border into China at approximately 4 a.m. on January 11. Fortify Rights received reports that Chinese state security forces initially allowed some families seeking asylum to cross into Chinese territory. Shortly after dawn on January 11, Chinese state security forces began turning back refugees at the border and forcibly returned all who had crossed earlier. 

Representatives of the JST told Fortify Rights that an additional 2,500 IDPs residing in Maga Yang IDP camp near the Myanmar-China border are also preparing to flee in light of recent attacks. The JST will hold an urgent briefing on the humanitarian situation at 1 p.m. today in Yangon.

Given the escalating conflict in Myanmar and the lack of protection in China, there is a growing sense of insecurity among Kachin communities living in the conflict zone.

“We are not allowed to go into China,” a 20-year old displaced Kachin man living in Pa Kahtawng IDP camp near Maijayang town in Kachin State told Fortify Rights. “If a mortar falls in this camp and there is fighting around us, where will we flee? There will be nowhere for us to run. I’m afraid the Chinese government won’t accept us. Whenever there is fighting around here, the border is full of Chinese soldiers and they won’t allow anyone to pass.”

Fighting between the Myanmar military and the Kachin Independence Army (KIA)—the primary ethnic armed opposition group operating in Kachin State—has displaced more than 23,000 people during the past several weeks. The JST reported that an estimated 2,560 IDPs fled Zai Awng IDP camp, north of Laiza, on December 27 after several mortar shells landed nearby. Similar attacks forced several hundred other displaced civilians to move from Mung Lai Hket IDP camp to Woi Chyai IDP camp in Laiza, the administrative capital of the KIA. In early December, the Myanmar military reportedly bombed churches, schools, and other non-military targets in northern Shan State during counter attacks against the Brotherhood of the Northern Alliance (BNA)—a coalition of four non-state ethnic armed groups, including the KIA. These attacks displaced 15,000 Kachin and Shan civilians, who likewise fled into China.

Myanmar authorities, including the civilian-led government, continue to effectively restrict humanitarian aid groups from operating freely in Kachin State and northern Shan State, resulting in avoidable deprivations of food, healthcare, and other humanitarian provisions for displaced communities.

“This is an abusive strategy. The Myanmar military is putting the squeeze on civilian populations, bombarding them with attacks while cutting off humanitarian aid,” said Matthew Smith. “Chinese authorities should do the right thing and provide protection.”

The United Nations Special Rapporteur on human rights in Myanmar Yanghee Lee is currently in Myanmar on a 12-day monitoring mission and was in government-controlled areas of Kachin State while attacks continued closer to the China border. The Government of Myanmar denied the Special Rapporteur access to certain conflict-affected areas of Kachin and Shan states.

Fortify Rights calls on the Government of Myanmar to immediately grant the United Nations and international humanitarian aid groups free and unfettered access to all conflict-affected areas in Myanmar. Fortify Rights also calls upon the United Nations, international aid groups, and donor governments to redouble their support for Kachin-led relief efforts. 

Armed conflict has raged in Kachin and northern Shan states since June 2011, when the Myanmar Army attacked several KIA outposts near a hydropower dam financed and operated by a Chinese company, breaking a 17-year-long ceasefire agreement. More than 120,000 ethnic civilians are now displaced and residing in more than 170 displacement sites in Kachin and northern Shan states.

In February 2015, more than 50,000 ethnic Kokang fled into China from Myanmar military attacks in Shan State, and Chinese authorities provided them with food, medical supplies, and shelter. Since 2011, however, Chinese authorities have denied entry and forcibly returned thousands of ethnic Kachin civilians fleeing fighting between the Myanmar Army and KIA.

Returning asylum seekers to a conflict zone without properly assessing the risks is a violation of China’s obligations under international law, Fortify Rights said.

China is a state party to the 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol. As a party to the Refugee Convention and Protocol, China is legally bound to facilitate the right to asylum and ensure protections for refugees. However, China has yet to enact legislation to properly assess asylum claims and ensure protections in line with international standards. China is further obligated under the principle of nonrefoulement, which is protected by customary international law, not to forcibly return refugees to places where their lives or freedom would be threatened. 

“In the past few years, Chinese authorities pressured Myanmar to deny the U.N. and aid groups access to border areas, and Myanmar obliged,” said Matthew Smith. “Denying a sizable civilian population access to protection and aid is not only legally problematic, it’s also against the interests of Beijing and Naypyidaw.”

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