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UNHCR Seeks Access to Burmese Refugees in China

The United Nations refugee agency says it still has not been granted access to thousands of refugees who fled from Burma into China in recent weeks. The UNHCR says it is concerned that more refugees might flee to China if the situation in Burma, also known as Myanmar, continues to deteriorate.

Thousands of people fleeing from fighting in the Kokang area of northeastern Burma have crossed into China's southwestern province of Yunnan. They have been given refuge by the Chinese authorities.

The UN Refugee Agency says it appreciates what the government has done in providing emergency shelter for the refugees and in providing food, clothing and medical care for around 13,000 refugees who are living in seven camp sites.

But, spokesman Andrej Mahecic says, so far, UNHCR aid workers have not been allowed to see and talk to the refugees.

"UNHCR has called on the Chinese authorities to allow us access to the border area and has proposed a joint needs assessment so as to offer support to any possible unmet need," Mahecic said. "We hope this request will be positively considered as additional displacement may occur in the region should the situation deteriorate in the Wa State of Myanmar."

Most of the Kokang residents are ethnic Han Chinese who have lived in the area for centuries and still maintain ties with China. Tensions reportedly started to rise on August 7 after Burma's military government sent 30 police officers into a weapons repair factory in Kokang. The government reportedly believed the facility was being used to produce drugs.

Chinese media are reporting that some of the 37,000 ethnic Chinese Kokang people who crossed into China from Burma are returning home. Mahecic says it is not possible to confirm this report because UNHCR staff members are not there.

"But, in general, most of the refugees try to stay close to their homes and when they flee, they flee either to the neighboring country or the neighboring village," Mahecic said. "And, they tend to return home as soon as possible. So, we are aware that some people are heading back. We have no indications that people are being forced to return."

The UNHCR has proposed a joint mission with Chinese authorities to assess the needs of the refugees. It says it would like to assist the government in providing humanitarian aid. The UNHCR says it also is important to interview the refugees to determine whether any of them are in need of international protection.