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Despair of the Hmong refugees in Thailand:  Laos must allow international supervision

As this issue of IRQ goes to the print, the personnel of the Third Army Region of Thailand, which oversees security in the north, have reportedly started the process of finalising the classification of the Hmong refugees who sought asylum following their escape from Laos in 2004 and 2005. Caretaker Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra has assigned the responsibility to classify the refugees to Internal Security Operations Command. More than 4,000 out of 6,058 Hmongs at Phetchabun's Ban Huay Nam Khao village were found to have come from Laos. The rest are long-term residents of the recently closed Wat Tham Krabok refugee camp in Saraburi.

The aim of the classification is to facilitate the return of the Hmong refugees to Laos, as soon as possible, according to the Thai government officials. According to the Deputy Chief of Internal Security Operations Command, General Panlop, some of the Hmongs who worked for the United States during the Vietnam war would be assisted in migrating to a third country, particularly to the US and the rest are to be repatriated to Laos.

Therein lies the problem. The Laotian government refuses to accept the Hmong refugees in Thailand as its citizens. The Government of Laos stated that the Hmongs in Phetchabun are Thailand's domestic problem! It has accused Thailand of failing to prove that they are citizens of Laos. According to Ambassador of Laos to Thailand, Hiem Phommachanh, the Hmong refugees came to Phetchabun only in the hope of resettlement to the United States and that Hmong community leader Vang Pao, who has been living in the US since the end of the Vietnam War in 1975, has been responsible for influx of ethnic Hmong refugees into Thailand.

The repression on the Hmongs of Laos requires little introduction. Despite their repression in Laos, the Thai government is willing to flout international law to deport the refugees. In the present process of classification, the Thai government officials insisted that they would not refoule the Hmong refugees. But there are few takers.

On 28 November 2005, Thai police in Phetchabun's Khao Kho district arrested 29 Hmongs, mostly teenagers from Ban Huay Nam Khao while they were returning from a religious service at a nearby church. Authorities deported 27 of them across the Mekong River at Nong Khai to Laos' Bolikhamxay province. Two others were detained at Khao Kho district police station and have since been awaiting trial. Another six Hmong refugees, including a 50-year-old widow, See Her from the Saisomboun Special Zone in western Laos were arrested for illegal entry into Thailand after they ventured out of Ban Huay Nam Khao village to seek food. They were being detained in Khao Kho police station.

The status of these refouled Hmongs, mostly children, remained unknown despite interventions of the international community.

In July 2005, the Thai authorities forced the local land owners in Phetchabun's Khao Kho district to expel the Hmong asylum seekers or face charges of sheltering illegal immigrants, which carry maximum penalties of five years in prison and a 50,000-baht fine. In a meeting in early July 2005, the National Security Council and the Police Immigration Bureau decided to forcefully repatriate the Hmongs. On 4 July 2005, one of the refugees reportedly attempted suicide and 10 others threatened to kill themselves after being evicted from temporary shelter. Five Hmong refugees died of diarrhoea and several had fallen sick after they were forced out of temporary shelters to stay along a road.

It was only after the intervention of the National Human Rights Commission on 8 July 2005 that the Royal Thai Government halted its plan of forceful repatriation of the Hmong indigenous refugees to Laos. The decision was taken reportedly following a meeting of security agencies, including the National Security Council and National Human Rights Commission, with Deputy Prime Minister Chidchai Vanasatidhya.

The Royal Thai Government, although not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of the Refugees, has obligations for protection of the refugees staying in its soil, including the Hmongs.

There are no past records to show that Laos has either acceded to any request by the international community for respecting the human rights of the Hmongs or that it implemented any of the recommendations made to it by the UN chartered bodies. On 18 April 2005, the CERD Committee after examining the report of the government of Laos expressed concerns "at reports that serious acts of violence have been perpetrated against members of the Hmong minority, in particular allegations that soldiers brutalized and killed a group of five Hmong children on 19 May 2004" and urged Laos to "provide more precise information about the bodies responsible for investigating these allegations and allow United Nations bodies for the protection and promotion of human rights to visit the areas in which members of the Hmong minority have taken refuge".  But no action has been taken by the government of Laos to implement these recommendations.

The government of Laos does not provide protection to those who are returned to the country.  Returnee refugees are subjected to greater scrutiny by the authorities than the other citizens. The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has been denied permission to re-establish its mission in the country to monitor the reintegration of former refugees who returned under UNHCR's resettlement program.

If the Hmong refugees currently sheltered in Thailand were to be returned to Laos, the involvement of UNCHR and ICRC is indispensable. Or else not repatriation of the Hmongs to Laos should be undertaken. (Reprinted with the permission of Asian Centre for Human Rights, New Delhi)

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