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Do Hmong deported by Thailand face danger in Laos?

Thailand deported more than 4,500 ethnic Hmong to their homeland of Laos, saying they were largely economic migrants, not persecuted refugees. But the US government condemned the move.

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Thailand: West slow to take on refugees themselves

Thai officials say genuine asylum seekers, including the 158 deportees, can be processed in Laos and resettled in the US and other countries. The Lao government has said that this can happen within 30 days, says Thani Thongpakdi, a spokesperson for Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.

“We’ve been given assurances by the Lao government that the Hmong who have returned to Laos will not be persecuted,” he says.

A senior Thai military official said that Western countries critical of Thailand's treatment of displaced Hmong had been slow to offer solutions, prompting Thailand to take matters into its own hands. "Nobody has paid attention to looking after them or taking them to their own countries," he says.

Human rights groups say the treatment by Communist-ruled Laos of Hmong is questionable, particularly in the case of groups of Hmong insurgents still fighting in remote mountain areas under military control. Some of the deportees are linked to the insurgents, who have support from exiled Hmong in the US and are believed to be only a few hundred-strong.

“There needs to be some sort of credible monitoring process on the Lao side of the border,” says Benjamin Zawacki, a researcher in Bangkok for Amnesty International.

Thailand screened the 4,300 Hmong at the camp and found that a small number belonged to a “sensitive group,” says Mr. Thani, who declined to classify them as refugees. The remainder were economic migrants who would be given land and housing in Laos according to an agreement between the two countries.

But Ms. Rummery said Thailand’s decision to deport asylum seekers who had already been approved for resettlement could be problematic, as UNHCR has until now been unable to open an office in Laos.

Critics say Thailand’s Prime Minister Abhisit Vejajjiva, who took office a year ago with military backing after royalist protests against the previous government, is reluctant to stand up to the military on sensitive issues like national security and refugee camps.

In January, Thailand’s military was accused of pushing several boatloads of Muslim refugees from Burma out to sea on ships without motors or adequate food and water. Hundreds were later rescued after their vessels washed up India and Indonesia, while others drowned at sea. Under international pressure, Mr. Abhisit promised an enquiry but failed to reprimand any of the military officials implicated in the program.

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