The lack of aid reaching the thousands displaced by fighting in Kachin State over the past year has increased the risks of human trafficking into China, as rackets exploit the growing numbers of destitute people making for the border.
Camps for internally displaced persons (IDPs) along Burma’s frontier with China continue to swell as ongoing fighting forces people from their homes across the northern state. In Je Yawng Pa camp outside of Laiza, an average of 50 new arrivals each week has led to a scramble for new shelters.
It is among the estimated 70,000 IDPs that trafficking rackets are finding their prey. Seng Jat Du, the chief administrator of Je Yawng Pa, told The Irrawaddy that, in the absence of financial protection here, large numbers of people were making the short trip across the border in search of work.
“Then they realize that they can’t make enough money and end up in the hands of human traffickers,” he said.
Aid has struggled to reach these camps, which lie well within territory controlled by the Kachin Independence Army (KIA), whose latest period of fighting in its protracted conflict with the Burmese government recently passed the one-year mark.
The UN has been granted permission for three trips inside KIA-controlled areas; the most recent in early June was to deliver the remaining stock from a semi-aborted April attempt.
The reluctance on the part of Naypyidaw to allow them greater access likely stems from two concerns—a perception that UN aid would bolster the KIA, and a feeling that the continued denial of outside help drains the budget, and thus strength, of the KIA, which has provided the bulk of funding for the relief effort.
Local groups, however, are struggling to meet the needs of the displaced, and as the rainy season approaches, the risks of disease and declining food security heightens. That shortfall has a knock-on effect for the general livelihoods of those who have been forced to flee their homes.
“In the absence of robust protections that would come with international aid and support for local relief efforts, the IDP camps are essentially pools of prey for human traffickers,” said Matthew Smith, a Human Rights Watch consultant who compiled its report on the Kachin conflict, “Untold Miseries.”
“Women living in the camps need income due to the lack of aid, so many work in Yunnan [in neighboring China] as day laborers on plantations, where they are at a heightened risk of being trafficked into sex work or forced marriage, to say nothing of the working conditions.”
The camps, Smith says, are unable to meet international standards for ensuring security of its residents, largely due to poor funding. Most of the Kachin providing assistance are not professional aid workers, but volunteers, teachers, parents, and so on. “Many of whom dropped everything when the war started,” Smith added.
La Rip, head of the Laiza-based Relief Action Network for IDP and Refugee (RANIR), which coordinates aid among the handful of local NGOs operating here, said that ignorance among the families of those at risk of trafficking also fuels the practice.
“Even the parents encourage their children—their young daughters and sons—to find jobs in China, and they go there illegally,” he said, adding that IDPs from Kachin State have been known to be trafficked as far as Beijing and the North Korean border. “If there are legal protections for them when they go there, then I think trafficking would decrease.”
The UN last year came under fire for failing to acknowledge the extent of the refugee crisis, and for not going public on the government’s refusal to allow aid in. The Untold Miseries report notes an apparently widespread fear among international NGOs working in Burma that traveling into rebel-controlled areas could put an organization’s entire in-country operation at risk.
It said that government intransigence “has deterred some humanitarian groups from seeking formal approval from the Burmese authorities to access certain areas.
“These agencies, all with an interest in expanding humanitarian space, have expressed concern that even making such requests could result in government reprisals against their other officially approved projects in the country.”
The human trafficking phenomenon adds another problem to the myriad already being experienced by Kachin IDPs. La Rip noted that funding for trauma counseling for those suffering the psychological effects of war had also dried up.
This presents a real concern for women and the elderly, particularly around the area of Maijayang where rights abuses, including rape and the killing of children, have been particularly prevalent. The local aid workers who channeled support to the camps “are not listening to how they feel,” he said. “They provide food and so on, but they do not talk to them.”
Marip Lu, in her mid-80s, arrived in Je Yawng Pa with her daughter only a month ago, but in that time has deteriorated significantly. Her daughter said that she had lost control of her bladder and could not stand.
“She used to be chatty before but now she doesn’t talk to anyone,” said her daughter. Marip Lu had been forced to hide in her home in Npawn village, two hours from the camp, for three days in April. Fighting raged nearby, and bullets flew in the direction of her home. At one point her daughter feared she might be dead.
“She doesn’t know where she is, nor why she’s here,” said the daughter. Camp officials offered “presents and encouragement” from time to time, but, echoing La Rip, avoided extended dialogue.
RANIR says it is seeking additional funding to help with the psychological side of the conflict, but is struggling with the burden. “We don’t know how to implement counseling programs—it’s a very delicate job,” said La Rip.
Like the human trafficking scourge, trauma is not seen as an immediate crisis when compared with the physical costs of the conflict, a factor that has complicated efforts to boost awareness and funding.