Bangkok Post Sunday June 29, 2008
Let UNHCR play major role
The news that the Thai military has over the last week forcibly returned hundreds of Hmong refugees from the Huai Nam Khao camp in Petchabun province to Laos, even after Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama told a representative from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) at the end of last month there would be no forced repatriation, amounts to an outright refusal by the present government to commit to fundamental human rights.
The action occurred after about 5,000 Hmong marched out of the camp on Friday, June 20, with the expressed intent of walking all the way to Bangkok to draw international attention to their plight and to protest against an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments to send them back to Laos.
According to eyewitness reports from media and NGOs, the Hmong were blocked by riot police and troops on a road about 5km from the village of Khet Noi and forced to spend the night in the open. Hundreds were taken to provincial jails. Aid workers at Huay Nam Khao said about 1,600 people, or a third of those who marched out of the camp, had failed to return. About eight families were reportedly taken to Nong Khai by truck last Sunday and then sent to Laos. Another 832 Hmong were put into buses and taken to Nong Khai for deportation. Reactions from the government and the Armed Forces have been hard to come by, but reportedly they are maintaining the repatriations are voluntary. However, according to the organisation Me’decins Sans Frontieres (MSF), which has been working with the refugees since 2005, families are literally being torn apart. For example, women have been sent back to Laos without their children, including one MSF staff member.
The Hmong claim refugee status and say they fled persecution in Laos because they were part of a CIA-backed force that fought the communists in the 1960s and 1970s.
According to an MSF newsletter, there are more than 150 people with bullet wounds they claim were suffered at the hands of the Lao army a few years ago while they were staying in the jungle inside Laos. A number of Hmong refugees are receiving treatment from MSF for mental trauma believed to be caused by violence and persecution they experienced in Laos.
While allowing around 7,800 Hmong to stay in Huay Nam Khao village since late 2004, the Thai authorities have denied them refugee status, insisting that they are economic migrants and have not been persecuted. As might be expected, the Lao government also denies any persecution, and has sought their repatriation.
UNHCR regional representative Raymond Hall met with Minister Noppadon to discuss the situation at Huai Nam Khao in late May and to seek verification of the well-being of Hmong refugees who have been repatriated from Thailand to Laos. Besides assuring Mr Hall there would be no forced repatriation, Mr Noppadon reportedly told him his Lao counterpart, Thongloun Sisoulith, had informed him UN representatives would be welcome to see Hmong who had already been returned.
The timing is also curious considering that legislation with very broad support was introduced to the US Congress just two weeks ago that would formally request Thailand to suspend repatriation of ethnic Hmong people to Laos and also provide the UN access to the refugees and asylum seekers.
A US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI) report recently gave the country bad marks for its record on refugees. While it should be remembered that few countries have had to deal with the kind of refugee pressures Thailand has for so long, chiefly from Burma and to a lesser extent from Laos – and despite the fact that Thailand has never signed the UN Convention on Refugees – repatriation should only be an option after an arrangement has been worked out between the Thai and Lao governments and the UNHCR to allow for monitoring of the situation.