Thais may try to force Lao refugees back over border

The possibility that Thailand may force more than 100,000 Laotian refugees by Thailand back across the Mekong River to Laos is causing concern among refugee officials.

If carried out, the move would improve relations between Thailand and Laos and discourage flight of more Lao refugees to Thailand.

But the reported statement by Thailand's new deputy interior minister, Narong Wongwan, that the Laos would be sent back "whether they like it or not" is being greeted with skepticism in some quarters.

They suggest the statement could have been made to focus greater attention on the Lao refugee problem, thus increasing demands on third countries to accept refugees. The statement could also have been made for internal political consumption in Thailand, where refugees are sometimes resented on grounds they receive favored treatment.

If the plan, as announced in Bangkok, is implemented, it would appear to defy the policy of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees not to force refugees back to their countries of origin. It would also violate Thai Prime Minister Kriangsak Chamanan's "open door" policy toward Indo- Chinese refugees.

Even if not implemented, it may cause some would-be Laotian refugees to think twice before leaving for refugee camps from which they might someday in the future be returned.

Some 2,000 to 3,000 Lao refugees a month are crossing the Mekong, according to a Laotian official. The flow, believed higher this year than in the past, increases at this time of the year due to the low Mekong water level and economic shortages in Laos. At present there are 110,000 to 115,000 Lao refugees in Thailand.

Last month there were reports Thailand and Laos held repatriation talks concerning 600 Laotians who had fled to Thailand since Nov. 22, 1979. The Thai government at the time denied it was considering a Lao government request for repatriation.

US sources are quoted as saying that to their knowledge no forced repatriations have taken place, but they say there has been talk of a limited voluntary repatriation program between Thailand and Laos.

The Lao government has long sought to lure refugees to return, offering government jobs and other inducements to those who come back.

But so far this problem has had little success. Refugees have expressed fears that if they return they will be punished, be politically suspect, or given low-ranking jobs on grounds they are not trustworthy.

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