Leaders on a local, national and international level are expressing grave concern about reports that the Thai government is deporting more than 4,000 Lao-Hmong refugees from Huay Nam Khao Camp in Petchabun Province, Thailand back to Laos.
Minnesota State Sen. Mee Moua (DFL-67) said the deportation is taking place despite the fact that both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai government have determined that these refugees are in need of protection from persecution from their homeland of Laos.
“The Thai military has deployed 5,000 armed soldiers to Huay Nam Khao Camp, which in recent days has been arbitrarily imprisoning individuals and cutting off all forms of communications and medical relief,” said Moua. “The fact that reporters, as well as human rights organizations, have been barred from the camp makes it increasingly difficult to verify the current activities of the Thai military.”
Editor’s note: The deportation took place during the last week of Decembeer, 2009, despite international protests.
Moua added that the bilateral agreement between the Thai military and the government of Laos to forcibly deport these families back to Laos in spite of concerns expressed by the international community, as well as multiple human rights organizations, is not in alliance with the good spirit of international human rights.
UN High Commissioner for Refugees António Guterres stated Monday that his agency is dismayed as Thai authorities began the forced deportation of thousands of ethnic Hmong back to neighboring Laos. He is also concerned about Thai plans to expel a second group of 158 Hmong held in detention for three years in Nong Kai, northeastern Thailand. They are all identified as refugees by UNHCR.
“I call upon the Thai Government to halt the forced return of the Lao Hmong, some of whom have international protection needs,” said Guterres, adding that to endanger the refugees also sets a “very grave international example.”
Guterres said the UNHCR option is for Thailand to halt the deportations and allow time for solutions of voluntary return and third country resettlement.
Many Hmong living in the highlands of Laos took part in the conflict that engulfed the country in the 1960s and 1970s. When the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand in search of asylum, while others were resettled in Western countries such as the United States.
U.S. State Department Spokesman Ian Kelly also stated this week that his office agrees with the original status of the Hmong as refugees by both the UNHCR and the Royal Thai Government.
“We deeply regret this serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing,” said Kelly. “The United States strongly urges Thai authorities to suspend this operation.
“We also urge the Lao People’s Democratic Republic to treat humanely any Lao Hmong who are involuntarily returned, to provide access for international monitors, and facilitate resettlement opportunities for any eligible returnee,” he added. “We will remain engaged in this important humanitarian issue.”
Sen. Moua said that international law is clear regarding the involuntary return of persons entitled to protection, and that this incident is inconsistent with precedents and agreements established since World War II. These long-established principle state that refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to countries where they could face persecution and death, she added. The Thai government must honor international law and immediately desist this deportation.
“There are a number of Minnesotans who are concerned for the safety of their family members in Thailand,” said Moua. “I ask the U.S. State Department to hold the Lao government accountable for their guarantee of the refugees’ safety. I urge the Lao government to allow the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations access to these families to ensure that they are safe and have access to food, shelter, and medical attention.”
This week, U.S. Senators from Minnesota Al Franken and Amy Klobuchar, along with Wisconsin U.S. Senators Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, released a joint statement on the forced repatriation issue, adding that it was done over the objections of the United Nations, the U.S. Government, and international human rights groups.
Earlier this month, Senators Feingold, Franken and Klobuchar were among several senators who wrote directly to Abhisit Vejjajiva, Prime Minster of Thailand, with concerns about the possible repatriation.
“This action violates humanitarian and refugee principles and could have serious repercussions,” said the statement. “We share the concern of many of our Hmong-American constituents whose loved ones have been forced to return, and we will be paying close attention as the Hmong are resettled in Laos. We urge the Government of Laos to ensure the safety and well being of these individuals and to allow immediate and ongoing monitoring by international observers at all stages of the resettlement and reintegration process.”
U.S. State Department Spokesman Mark C. Toner said December 24, that for the past two years, the United States has expressed concerns about the forced repatriation of Lao Hmong repeatedly to Thai leaders, as recently as during a visit by Eric Schwartz, Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration to Thailand this week.
“The United States and others have been working actively with the Governments of Thailand and Laos to find a mutually acceptable resolution in line with international principles,” said Toner. “We are confident such solutions are achievable, but they require that the Royal Thai Government refrain from involuntary return of those who merit protection.”