China has expelled 5,000 ethnic Kachin people who fled fighting between rebels and Myanmar troops, the United Nations refugee agency said Friday, calling on China to protect and shelter the displaced people.
China has denied pushing them back to Myanmar, also known as Burma. The U.N. and human rights groups say the Kachin fear returning to northern Burma, where the eruption of fighting last summer between government forces and armed Kachin rebels has displaced thousands of civilians.
Human Rights Watch says that since the violence broke out Myanmar soldiers have tortured civilians, raped Kachin women and forced children to fight. Fighting continues in contested areas of Kachin state, the group wrote in a letter to Chinese officials this week.
“There appears to be no basis for claims made by Chinese officials that the ethnic Kachin in Yunnan Province are not refugees and not deserving of protection inside China,” the group wrote.
Kachin returnees told U.N. officials that Chinese local authorities had pulled down their shelters. Some said they had been loaded onto a truck by plainclothes police. U.N. refugee agency spokesman Adrian Edwards said more than 3,400 returnees were living in camps in northern Myanmar because their homes had been destroyed and they were in desperate need of food and medicine.
The agency says it has been unable to reach Kachin in China despite repeated requests.
Chinese authorities have denied forcing Kachin people to leave. After the New York Times reported on the returns, the Chinese foreign ministry told the newspaper that the conflict was subsiding and Kachin people were choosing to go home of their own accord.
Outside analysts fear that the persistence of ethnic violence and tension in Myanmar, which has gradually made strides toward reform this year, could undercut its advances. Human rights groups caution that the reopening of Western investment in the country while the conflicts continue could end up bankrolling state abuses.
-- Emily Alpert in Los Angeles