Yunnan Province, China. A sea of mud that was once a pathway leads up to Mui Hpu Kaw’s bamboo hut in the refugee camp of La Ying, in China’s Yunnan Province, near the Burmese border. Heavy rain pelts down on the plastic sheeting that serves as a roof of the temporary shelter while she boils a pot of rice on an open fire for her seven grandchildren.
“I was living in a displaced persons camp on the Kachin side of the border after our village was attacked by the Burmese soldiers last year,” said the 66-year old Kachin grandmother. “But my son warned me that the Burmese troops were advancing on the camp so we fled across the border.” Her family is among 2,000 displaced Kachin living in the La Ying camp.
Four of Mui Hpu Kaw’s sons are Kachin Independence Army (KIA) soldiers who have been fighting against Burmese government troops across the border in Kachin State since a 17-year-old ceasefire collapsed between the two sides in June 2011. The KIA has been fighting for greater autonomy from Myanmar’s central government for the past six decades
According to recent figures released by the IDPs and Refugees Relief Committee (IRRC), based in Laiza, a large town in Kachin State, there are currently nine official Kachin refugee camps in China housing 7,097 people. Another 3,000 Kachin civilians are staying with relatives or in unofficial temporary settlements near the Chinese border, the IRRC says.
This is in addition to the more than 62,000 people displaced within Myanmar, including 24,000 in government-controlled areas, and close to 40,000 in KIA-controlled areas, the UN estimates.
“Kachin Refugees from Burma in China’s Yunnan Province” are “isolated,” said a report released by Human Rights Watch (HRW) on June 26, and the lack of access to camps in China by international NGOs is creating severe shortages of food and medical supplies.
“Many of the refugees have been in China for more than a year and their resources are running out. We are sliding into a humanitarian crisis for these people,” the deputy director of HRW’s Asia division, Phil Robertson, told IRIN.
“It’s time for China to step up and recognize that it has obligations, after ratifying the refugee convention and its protocol, to not only protect refugees but also to assist and enable others, like the UNHCR [the UN Refugee Agency] to assist them,” Robertson said.
May Li Aung, of the Wun Pawng Ninghtoi (WPN), an umbrella group of eight Kachin aid agencies working with displaced civilians on both sides of the border, noted that “Although we still have some basic food supplies like rice and cooking oil, our complimentary foods that are essential in maintaining the health of the youngsters and the old people are no longer available.”
Since the start of the conflict, most of the food and medical supplies in KIA-controlled areas have been donated by local religious groups, and the Kachin Independence Organization, the political wing of the KIA.
Assistance to government-controlled areas is more readily available, but the UN still has only limited access to KIA-controlled areas.
Kouzui Hayashi, 38, a former monk, now an aid worker for a Japanese Buddhist group, has visited several camps on the Chinese side of the border. “Many of the refugees have friends and relatives to support them and treat them like family,” he noted.
“However, there is a need for more nurses. Right now, there are very few and they are not experienced. If serious cases happen they have to go to neighboring towns where there is a proper hospital,” said Hayashi. In La Ying camp, La Bang Naw Tarong, 46, now boils his water for a long time after a serious bout of diarrhoea in May.
Further along the path from his hut, volunteer workers hammer together a new addition to the camp. “We all ran from different locations and have our children with us. That’s why we have to build schools for kindergarten kids, and we have to build a home for the teachers who come to teach our children,” said Naw Tarong. “I just want to go home, but the soldiers say it is too dangerous.”
As the displaced continue to live in dire conditions, human rights groups are calling on Beijing to immediately provide temporary protection and allow the United Nations and humanitarian agencies unhindered access to Kachin refugees in Yunnan.
“I think that the key bilateral partners in China — the EU [European Union], the US, Canada, Australia, others — also need to get behind the UNHCR [UN Refugee Agency], and support them politically by saying to China that they really need the UNHCR down there [in Yunnan]”, said HRW’s Robertson. “But [they should] also be prepared to provide concrete financial support for humanitarian assistance.”