Northern Myanmar conflict's displaced are traffickers' prey

by Thomson Reuters Foundation Correspondent | Thomson Reuters Foundation
Wednesday, 5 June 2013 08:19 GMT

A woman, with her two children, stokes a cooking fire at a camp for people displaced by fighting between government troops and the Kachin Independence Army, outside Myitkyina city in northern Myanmar, on Feb. 22, 2012. REUTERS/Soe Zeya Tun

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Kachin women and girls tricked, drugged, raped and sold into China as brides or bonded labour, according to report by women’s rights group

BANGKOK (Thomson Reuters Foundation) - Lack of humanitarian aid and protection for tens of thousands of people displaced by fighting in northern Myanmar’s Kachin state are creating a “perfect storm” for the trafficking of Kachin women to neighbouring China, a rights group said on Wednesday.

The conflict between the army and ethnic Kachin rebels started when a 17-year ceasefire broke down in June 2011 over longstanding grievances, but the two sides last week signed a preliminary agreement towards a ceasefire.

More than 85,000 people have been displaced over the past two years. Due to Myanmar government restrictions, international aid agencies have struggled to reach at least 50,000 people in areas controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA).

Facing prolonged displacement and little humanitarian assistance, many in the makeshift camps along the Myanmar-China border are forced to cross the border in search of work, said the latest report from the Kachin Women’s Association Thailand (KWAT), “Pushed to the Brink”.

Their lack of identification papers compounds their vulnerability, the report said.

“Push tens of thousands of people to China’s doorstep, deprive them of food and status, and you’ve created a perfect storm for human trafficking,” KWAT spokesperson Julia Marip said in statement.

DRUGGED, RAPED, SOLD

The report documents 24 cases of actual or suspected trafficking from Kachin border areas since fighting resumed. Thirteen of those involved girls 18 years old or younger.

The girls were tricked, drugged, raped and sold for about $6,500 per person to Chinese men and families as brides or bonded labourers, with some ending up as far as Shandong and Fujian provinces in eastern China.

Some managed to run away and be reunited with their families, while others disappeared.

With the conflict disrupting local anti-trafficking systems, these cases “represent only a small fraction of the actual trafficking cases that have taken place since the start of the conflict”, the report said.  

THE CUSP OF PEACE?

Yet peace may be on the horizon.

Myanmar's civilian government, which came to power in March 2011 ending half a century of iron-fisted military rule, has embarked on a range of reforms that have boosted media freedom and changed labour laws, while also signing ceasefire agreements with about a dozen ethnic rebel groups.

Peace with Kachin remained elusive until last Thursday, when the two sides signed a preliminary agreement  to reduce military tensions. A day later, Minister Aung Min from the president’s office said the internally displaced people in Kachin could soon return home.

KWAT remains cautious about the development.

“Both sides are not stepping (back). They're still on the frontlines. There can be fighting anytime,” Marip said at the launch of the report. “It means there’s no guarantee of peace for the internally displaced people returning.”

KWAT is calling on the government to withdraw its troops, allow humanitarian agencies free access to the displaced, and provide border passes and identification so the Kachin can cross the border legally in search of work.

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