Refugees held hostage at Nong Khai detention center

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For over 9 months now, a group of roughly 150 Lao Hmong refugees remain detained at a Thai Immigration Detention Center (IDC) with no signs of ever being released. Even though the group has already received official UNHCR refugee status, they continue to be held under hostage-like conditions.

On the one hand, the Thais have assured the foreign diplomatic community that they will not deport the refugees, but on the other hand they continue to make these refugees’ living conditions unbearable and inhumane, making the refugees become suicidal.

Both the Thai and Lao governments seem intent on continuing their charade and labeling these refugees as “illegal immigrants” and “economic migrants”, so that they can be deported to Laos. The real aggressor in this move is actually the Lao government, who continues to blackmail the Thais using the repatriation of this group as a pre-condition for accepting some 7700 Lao Hmong illegal migrants and refugees sheltered in Huay Nam Khao, Petchabun province.

Over the past two months, the living conditions and treatment of the Hmong refugees at Nong Khai IDC have deteriorated to such an extent that the UNHCR has described their conditions as “deplorable” and “inhumane”. Also, local authorities at the facilities have told the refugees that if they do not return to Laos they will have to remain at the facility until they die.

This ongoing treatment led to a recent hunger strike by the refugees. Several days later, the UNHCR and Australian Embassy intervened, convincing the Hmong refugees to halt their hunger strike. Now, the refugees are patiently waiting for a decision as to whether the Thai government will release them and allow them to resettle in a third country.

The Thai Prime Minister had announced earlier in the year that the group would be allowed to resettle in third countries if someone would take them. Since then, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands, and the United States had made commitments to resettle them. Sadly to say, the Thai government has stalled on this initiative and put a hold on any third country resettlement. Apparently, they do not want to anger the Lao government or encourage other Hmong refugees from coming into Thailand.

The Thai government has long been host to thousands of refugees, so it is very understandable that it must initiate some sort of policy to control the flow of illegal migrants across its borders. That being said, the Thai government should make a clear distinction between economic migrants and those who flee due to political persecution.

These Hmong refugees and their ancestors were recruited and trained by the Thais some 45 years ago to fight against the communists. The Lao Hmong were also used to fight communist insurgents inside Thailand and to fight some of Thailand’s border wars with Laos during the 1970-80s. The Lao Hmong have always been loyal to Thailand and very grateful for all its hospitality.

The current Thai policy regarding this small group of UNHCR recognized refugees seems very lopsided and unfair. These Hmong are all recognized refugees and have been accepted by third countries for resettlement. Releasing the group to resettle in a third country would in no way act as a pull factor for other Lao Hmong coming into Thailand. If anything, it would show to the world Thailand’s respect for international law.

Solving this problem does not rest with the Thai government alone. It is also the responsibility of the UNHCR, foreign diplomatic community, and human rights groups to make sure that these Hmong refugees are not sent back to their deaths. The Lao government will still not allow foreign observers into the country to monitor the returnees. How then can their basic human rights be protected?

Rather than being so concerned for the Thai and Lao governments in “saving face” in this matter, there should be arguably more consideration for the importance of saving Hmong refugees’ lives.