Sensitivity needed on forced migrations

PUBLISHED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am
UPDATED : Wednesday, 15 December, 2010, 12:00am

Last week, Shaanxi province revealed plans to relocate almost three million rural residents in what would be the largest ever forced migration in modern history. The goal of the plan is to alleviate poverty; those targeted by it are said to live in harsh terrain vulnerable to natural disasters. That is a laudable goal, but the mainland's track record with forced migrations, especially regarding those who had to make way for the Three Gorges Dam project, raises considerable concerns over the latest plan.

Over 10 years, the Three Gorges Dam project forced the migration of more than 1.2 million people. In 2007, the National Audit Office estimated almost 300 million yuan (HK$349.5 million) of funds intended to assist the relocated citizens start up a new life had been misused across 10 counties. Money had been used to open government-run businesses, pay salaries in administrative departments, pay off debts and bank loans and build offices. Official statistics point out that only one in four of the displaced residents were given the vocational training promised them.

The latest plan is different in that the relocation is aimed directly at protecting the residents from natural disasters, and alleviating poverty. The regions being targeted are in harsh and unstable terrain over which the construction of important public infrastructure is difficult and where fertile soil is scarce. The residents are being moved for their own benefit, rather than for any greater good of the nation.

Nevertheless, forced migration in such a diverse country as China, where there is a great disparity between the lifestyles of those in certain regions compared to others, is a traumatic experience. If this Shaanxi plan is to go ahead, the affected people must be thoroughly consulted in order to ensure that they are properly trained and equipped to adapt to their new surroundings. Investment and resources for the plan must be sufficient, and there must be proper monitoring of the funds. If the government is to force people into such dramatic life changes, it must do so sensitively and carefully.