Pressure builds on Thailand not to deport Lao Hmong (Roundup)
Dec 25, 2009, 11:16 GMT
Bangkok - Thailand's Christmas present from the international community Friday was a barrage of appeals to cancel its plans to deport some 4,000 ethnic Hmong refugees to Laos before the New Year.
Thailand earlier this year agreed with Laos to deport 4,200 Lao-Hmong living at Huai Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province and another 158 recognized Hmong refugees detained in Nong Khai province by year-end 2009.
The two detention areas are under the control of the Thai army and have been off-limits to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees for the past two years.
The army searched Huai Nam Khao camp earlier this week and confiscated sharp objects and all mobile phones, sparking fears among Western governments and human rights groups that a mass deportation of the Hmong was imminent.
Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has confirmed that the Hmong are to be deported soon but has vowed the process would not violate their human rights, a claim that has been questioned since many of the Hmong fear a return to communist Laos.
'Under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation not to forcibly return persons to places where their life or freedom is at risk,' said Elaine Pearson, deputy director for Human Rights Watch, in a letter to the Thai prime minister.
Her concerns were echoed by UN Human Rights Commissioner Antonio Guterres.
'In accordance with international law, Thailand has the responsibility and international obligation to ensure that any return of recognized refugees or other persons in need of international protection to their country of origin is undertaken on a strictly voluntary basis,' he said in Geneva.
The Hmong, an ethnic minority group who lived for generations in Laos' mountainous northern regions, were recruited as guerrilla fighters for the US military's 'secret war' against communist forces in the country during the Indochina War.
The US lost and the Hmong were left behind to be persecuted. Tens of thousands fled to Thailand and from there were resettled, primarily in the US.
A Hmong resistance movement against the Lao government, financed mostly by overseas Lao in the US, has largely died down but the remaining Hmong claim to be still victimized by the regime.
'We have had assurance from the Lao government that the Hmong returnees will not be persecuted, otherwise we would not be pursuing this course of action,' Thai Foreign Ministry deputy spokesman Thani Thongpakdi said.
He pointed out that there was no evidence that previous batches of thousands of Hmong were persecuted on their return to Laos.
In 2003, the US accepted 14,000 Hmong refugees from a Thai camp, but insisted that it would accept no more.
Since then, some 8,000 more Hmong gathered in Huai Nam Khao, of whom more than 3,000 have already been repatriated.
A Thai Foreign Ministry source said hundreds of the Hmong in Huai Nam Khao were found to be from Thailand, and nearly all could be classified as 'economic migrants.'
So far, despite claims of concern about the Hmong's fate, no country has come forward to accept the Huai Nam Khao Hmong as a batch for mass resettlement, Thani said.
On Thursday, the United States said it was 'deeply concerned' about Thailand's plans, saying such a move could jeopardize their safety.
Earlier this week the European Union passed a letter to the Thai government expressing the bloc's concern about the pending deportation.
The Hmong have been at Huai Nam Khao since 2004.
Before quitting its work providing food and medical supplies at the camp, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) said it had recorded at least 108 cases of Huai Nam Khao residents with scars from bullet wounds and other signs of past torture.
MSF also said it had taken testimony from many residents who fear for their lives if they are forced to return to communist Laos.