In a defiant move, Thailand has sent back to Laos more than 4,500 ethnic Hmong who fled their homeland in recent years and many of whose elders fought for the CIA during the Vietnam War.
The US government has strongly condemned the mass deportation of displaced Hmong, who have claimed persecution at home and sought refugee status. Thailand says that the vast majority are economic migrants and are assured fair treatment by Lao authorities.
The expulsions began early Monday at a military-run camp in northern Thailand. Truckloads of Hmong were later driven to a bridge over the Mekong River that divides the two countries, and handed over to Laos. All have now been returned, according to Thai and UN officials.
Human rights groups say Thailand’s refusal to allow UN officials to visit the camp and interview asylum seekers means that many Hmong may have been sent back to a country where they have a well-founded fear of persecution – the legal definition of a refugee.
While it has hosted large refugee populations along its borders, including in the aftermath of the Vietnam War, Thailand has never signed the 1951 UN Convention on Refugees. Security officials are wary of lenient policies that could attract more refugees from its unstable neighbors.
Successive groups of Hmong who fled Laos after the Communist takeover in 1975 have resettled in the US, mostly in St. Paul, Minn., and central California. The largest recent program in 2003 accepted around 14,000 Hmong who had taken shelter at a Buddhist temple in Thailand.
After that program ended, Thai authorities took a tougher line on Hmong living in Thailand, some of whom claimed kinship with pro-US fighters and sought unsuccessfully to join the US resettlement program. More than 3,000 have been deported to Laos since 2005.
Monday’s expulsions included a group of 158 Hmong, held separately in a border town, who were granted UN refugee status in 2006. The US and other countries had agreed to resettle members of this group, says Ariane Rummery, a spokesperson for the UN High Commission on Refugees.
But Thailand insisted that the 158 refugees must be sent back to Laos along with the other, larger group, despite last-ditch efforts by US officials to stall the process. UN officials and human-rights activists said that the deportations were involuntary and defied humanitarian norms. Around 5,000 unarmed soldiers took part in the operation, according to Thai press reports, though most news media were barred from the site.
“The forcible return of refugees to their country of origin is a violation of international law,” Ms. Rummery says.
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.