Elderly refugees in the Catholic-run relief camp at Mang Win
When the latest round of fighting broke out between Kachin rebels and government troops, ending a 17-year ceasefire, thousands of people were forced to flee across the border into China.
But in late August, the Chinese authorities started turning them away. They now find themselves back in Myanmar, near the danger zone and homeless.
“I can’t express how disappointed I am about the way the Chinese police treated us,” said Thomas Lama La, 72, a retired Catholic school teacher.
“Many of them came to our refugee camp and destroyed all the roofs of the temporary shelters, even though we were yet to pack our things. We had no option but to leave. I had to go to hospital here as the experience left me so weak.”
Lama La and his wife, along with around 4,000 other displaced Kachins, are now in a camp run by the Catholic Church. But they have become separated from their four children, who are in a camp in Shan state. And they are by no means in a place of safety.
“If the fighting intensifies, this place where we are now could be in the conflict zone,” said Lama La.
China’s move to send the refugees back has been widely condemned.
“China is flouting its international legal obligations by forcibly returning Kachin refugees to an active conflict zone that is rife with Burmese army abuses,” said Bill Frelick, refugee program director for Human Rights Watch.
But China pushed ahead with its intentions, working towards a deadline of September 4 to empty all the Kachin refugee camps on its side of the border. Health concerns were among the reasons cited for the closures.
“The Chinese authorities of Yunnan province told us they are concerned about the refugees spreading contagious diseases,” said Sai Li, an official at Ma Jai Yang township, which is controlled by the Kachin Independence Organization.
“They said the displaced people have been taking refuge in China for almost a year and they can no longer accept them.”
Sai Li, who is also vice president of the KIO Refugees Relief Committee, told ucanews.com that negotiation with China was impossible.
“We couldn’t win,” he said. “They even turned down our request to postpone repatriations until December, due to transportation difficulties in the rainy season.”
Even though many of them wept when they were sent back over the border, life for the refugees in China was not in any way pleasant. They were not able to move freely outside the camps and not allowed to cut trees for firewood.
We were living in a manger,” said one of them. “We had the smell of cow manure constantly.”
But despite all their ordeals, some say they are glad to be back home. “Now I can be buried in my own country when I die,” said one refugee. "But even after I die, I won’t close my eyes until there is peace in Kachin.”
China repatriates Kachin refugees