The lost children of Laos: Advocating for liberation of detained Hmong youth


Worn fabrics and remnants of personal belongings hang from the ceiling bars, impeding the flow of sunshine through tiny windows. The mixed, stagnating stench of food, urine, human waste, and unwashed bodies permeates the air of the cramped living space where people have to eat, toilet, and sleep. Small and fragile silhouettes peer through the light wondering what lies beyond the bars, guards, and locks.

For hundreds, this is childhood. Instead of waking in a bed of their own, the children wake stiff and sore from a rough, blanketless night’s sleep. Instead of finding breakfast set in morning, the children suffer headaches and hunger pangs from the emptiness that pummels at their insides. And instead of discovering imaginative solace in the great outdoors, the children find their playtime limited to just a few hours a day by stone-faced guards.

In the beginning, detention presented an escape from the threat of bullets. However, as the years pass and detainment comes to resemble normalcy, the once glossy eyes of children become hazy with the crestfallen grayness of premature adulthood.

Their crime? They are Hmong.

The Hmong hill tribe was recruited in 1961 by the United States to combat Vietcong forces during the Vietnam War. Following U.S. withdrawal from the region, communist forces seized control of Laos and have been systematically persecuting thousands of Hmong ever since. Hundreds of Hmong have managed to escape Laos and resettle in foreign countries as refugees.

Those Hmong who moved to Thailand, however, have yet to find the asylum they were seeking. As recently as July 2008, the Thai government forcibly sent 800 Hmong from the Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun to Laos, following Hmong protests over a bilateral agreement between Thai and Lao governments concerning repatriation. In Nov. 2007, 194 Hmong were arrested in Bangkok, the majority of which was sent to live in the Nong Khai Immigration and Detention Center. Currently there are 158 Hmong people imprisoned at Nong Khai; 90 are children, including 11 babies that were born within the past two years.

The living conditions of the Nong Khai detention center are dire. The 158 Hmong, all of whom have been declared “persons of concern” by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), are housed in two 9 meter by 9 meter rooms, one for males and the other for females. The same rooms are used for sleeping, eating, and toileting; as is such the living conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary. The Hmong are locked inside the detention center for most of the day with up to four hours allotted to outdoor exercise, depending on the generosity of the guards.

According to an anonymous Hmong activist, Thailand’s decision to detain the Lao Hmong at the Nong Khai IDC is a deliberate form of discrimination on the basis of nationality. Of the 194 arrested Hmong, only the 42 Vietnamese nationals were allowed to remain in a Bangkok detention facility and seek future resettlement in the Unites States.

Under the watchful eye of the international community, Thailand has undergone intense scrutiny for the treatment of its refugees. The U.S. Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), for example, issued a report listing Thailand as one of the ten worst places in the world for refugees. The listing reflects the living conditions of Thai encampments as well as egregious violations of internationally-accepted human rights principles such as non-refoulement, a central tenet of international customary law that states that no refugee should be forcibly returned to his or her country of origin if he or she will encounter any form of persecution or discrimination in that county.

In June 2008 the United States passed House Resolution 1273 which expressed concern for the persecuted Hmong in both Thailand and Laos. It urged Laos to end the ongoing humanitarian tragedy within its borders as well as allowing unfettered, international access to the Hmong in both Laos and Thailand, among other recommendations. The bill is evidence that the US government is aware of the ongoing atrocities but has stopped short of rallying a peacemaking mission to assist the Hmong.

Despite Hmong testimonies, reports from Medicines Sans Frontieres, and physical evidence of torture and armed violence, the Laos government still denies committing acts of persecution or discrimination against the Hmong.

Obligations to International Human Rights Treaties

As a host to over 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers, Thailand has a responsibility to protect those seeking safety within its borders. Despite Thailand not being party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, international organizations and human rights lawyers still feel that the Thai government has a duty to cooperate with international refugee law, particularly the principle of non-refoulement.

The Thai government has argued that the Hmong entered Thailand illegally and are therefore not welcome. In 2007 Laos and Thailand signed a border agreement in which they decided to jointly manage and collaborate on the Hmong issue. Also in 2007, Thailand requested the UN to stop Refugee Status Determination (RSD), which the UN did pending further review. Thus, Thailand is allowed to label the Hmong as “illegal migrants”, an argument the Thai government uses to justify forcible repatriation.

According to an anonymous Hmong activist, the Thai military officially told the Hmong leaders in October that the Hmong will receive 5,000 baht per person if they agree to return to Laos. They told the Hmong that they will be registering volunteers in late October for a planned November deportation.

While Thailand has not committed to international refugee law, it is legally bound to respect the human rights of children. In 1992 the state ratified and entered into force the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as its two optional protocols in 2006. Consequently, international law mandates that Thailand honor the rights of Hmong children as articulated by the CRC, a commitment that, regrettably, the Thai government has deliberately ignored. The result has been widespread denial of the most fundamental of rights to more than one thousand Hmong children.

According to Article 2 of the CRC, state parties must respect and ensure the rights set forth in the CRC to all children within their jurisdiction irrespective of race, skin color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. As is such, Thailand must take appropriate measures to ensure that Hmong children are protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of their ethnic and national status.

Additionally, the CRC binds Thailand to the following: ensuring that children are not separated from parents against their will unless deemed necessary by competent authorities (Article 9), providing children with proper nourishment so as to prevent disease and malnourishment (Article 24c), providing free and compulsory primary education to all children (Article 28a), not depriving children of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily (Article 37b), only detaining children as a measure of last resort (Article 37b), and providing prompt legal access or assistance to detained children as well as the right to challenge the legality of detention before a judicial body (Article 37d).

Undeniably, the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Center comprises an incredible violation of the rights of Hmong children who have been subjected to some of the same punishments as the adults and, in three cases, separated from parents. Primarily, the Thai government has systematically detained 90 Hmong children unlawfully and arbitrarily, a policy that is by no means one of last resort. Nong Khai lacks a school or educational resources, which signifies an unjustifiable loss of two formative years of education for the children growing up in the detention center. Furthermore, the children have no legal means or access to advocates to help them challenge their detention status before a judicial body.

According to human rights activist Ann Peters, who spent time with the people in Nong Khai in 2007, the Hmong were not receiving adequate food. During her visit, a church group she met with agreed to bring milk temporarily for the children. Another more recent report by Radion confirms the lack of adequate nutrition. CARE Raks Thai, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty, evaluated the interred people of Nong Khai and concluded that they were malnourished. Long-term effects of malnutrition in children include stunted growth and abnormal decreases in brain development.

Thailand respects the CRC in the case of Nepalese refugees. Clearly, Lao Hmong children are not afforded the same type of treatment.

The Hmong Action Network (HAN), a group of international human rights activists with its base in Seoul, South Korea, has been working for several months to bring heightened attention to the plight of the Hmong. Through their interactive blog (, articles published in various regional and citizens’ journals, and contacts with activists in Thailand, Laos and abroad, HAN has made a committed effort to sustaining informed dialogue on the fragile humanitarian situation.