BEIJING Chinese authorities have forced back into Myanmar some ethnic Kachin refugees who have fled across the border to escape civil war, and China is denying basic care to many who remain, a human rights group said on Tuesday.
Myanmar's government is in talks with autonomy-seeking Kachin rebels, and more than a dozen other ethnic minority rebel groups, to try to end all its decades-old conflicts.
But despite several rounds of negotiations, the conflict in Myanmar's northernmost Kachin state has not ended.
The fighting, which flared up in the middle of 2011 after a 17-year truce, has pushed up to 10,000 people to seek refuge across the border in the southwestern Chinese province of Yunnan.
New York-based Human Rights Watch said many of these people had little access to proper sanitation, shelter, healthcare or schools for their children.
Others had been detained, refused entry to China or even forced back into the conflict zone in their country, also known as Burma, the rights group said in a report.
"The Chinese government has generally tolerated Kachin refugees staying in Yunnan, but now needs to meet its international legal obligations to ensure refugees are not returned and that their basic needs are met," said Sophie Richardson, the group's China director.
"China has no legitimate reason to push them back to Burma or to leave them without food and shelter."
Human Rights Watch said it had documented two cases involving some 300 people who were ordered to return to Myanmar, and others who were sent back into the conflict zone after being turned away at the border.
China's Foreign Ministry denied the accusations, and said the people were not refugees.
"After the clashes abated they went back to Myanmar. While here, China provided help to them on humanitarian considerations," ministry spokesman Hong Lei told a regular news briefing.
A Yunnan province official said in March that authorities had been providing humanitarian help to the displaced and had helped mediate talks between the rebels and Myanmar's government.
While China has strong business and trade ties with Myanmar, it has long looked with wariness at its poor and unstable southern neighbour, and has repeatedly called on the country to ensure stability along their vast and remote border.
Chinese media on Tuesday cited police minister Meng Jianzhu as saying poppy cultivation in northern Myanmar had bounced back and that drugs were flooding into China from that part of the world, with heroin seizures up 55 percent in 2011 compared with the previous year.
Diplomats say the conflict in Kachin state is one of the biggest tests for Myanmar's new civilian government's reform effort.
As a signatory to various international conventions on refugees, China has an obligation to properly protect refugees, but it has not even allowed in the United Nations or international aid groups, Human Rights Watch added.
"Many Kachin refugees have already endured terrible abuses and war in Burma, only to settle into a life of dire struggle in Yunnan," Richardson said.
"Until it is safe for the Kachin to return home, the Chinese government has a responsibility to ensure their safety and well-being."
(Editing by Robert Birsel)