Published on September 1, 2007
Lao officials insisted yesterday they would take thousands of Hmong refugees from Thailand and even guarantee them a warm welcome back to their homeland, not the persecution feared by international human-rights groups.
The repatriation of more than 7,500 Hmong being held in Phetchabun's Ban Huai Nam Khao is the main topic on the agenda of a meeting of a Thai-Laos border security joint sub-committee to be held from tomorrow until Tuesday.
Along with the meeting, Lao officials will have a chance for the first time to visit Hmong refugees in Ban Huai Nam Khao camp, according to Lao spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy.
"We have filmed a documentary to show them how the Lao government treated their fellow Hmong who returned from Thailand previously," Yong told The Nation via a phone interview from Vientiane.
Vientiane has also prepared new homes for those who have sold all their property and have no relatives to rely on, said Yong, who is also a member of the sub-committee. The homes are in Kaxi district in Vientiane province, he added.
The Thai side is "classifying" the Hmong people and plans to hand that information to Laos to verify their place of origin. Many of them claim they were associates of the CIA fighters who fought against the communist movement before the fall of Vientiane in 1975 and fled from suppression at home. Thailand and Laos considered them as normal illegal migrants who must be deported.
A US-based group dedicated to the Hmong said Thailand had quietly deported more than 400 Hmong since November 2004, when they initially gathered in Ban Huay Nam Khao, but only 53 of them could be accounted for while the remaining 350 had gone missing in Laos.
However, Yong said his government had taken more than 300 Hmong deported from Thailand over the past years. "Even with the group of 26 Hmong deported without notification to Vientiane in December 2005, the Lao authorities managed to find them and resettled them mostly in their places of origin," he added. The Lao government needed time to check figures to determine whether any groups were deported without acknowledgement from Vientiane, he said.
Laos and Thailand would continue the repatriation of the Hmong until the end, Yong said, and noted that the meeting this week might not be able to fix a schedule for the repatriation.
"The Hmong issue is a matter left over for more than 30 years - sooner or later we must solve the problem," Yong said.
A New York-based human-rights group issued a statement yesterday urging the Thai government not to forcibly repatriate thousands of Lao Hmong refugees detained in Thailand into likely persecution in Laos.
"It is shocking that Thailand is even considering the return of refugees fleeing political persecution, rights abuses and fighting in Laos," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The Thai government's threatened return of the Lao Hmong refugees shows a brazen contempt for the most basic principle of refugee law."
The Thai government should accept the offers from other countries to resettle some Hmong refugees and allow other refugees to remain in Thailand until their cases can be resolved, the statement said. Human Rights Watch also expressed concern about a group of 149 Hmongs detained at the Immigration Detention Centre in Nong Khai province.
In January, a deportation attempt was aborted after male refugees locked themselves inside a building and threatened to commit suicide. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and many embassies intervened, convincing the government to back down.
Lao spokesman Yong said the group in Nong Khai would also be discussed during the meeting in the same package as those in Ban Huay Nam Khao. He said Vientiane needed them to come home.
The United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands have offered resettlement places to the 149 Lao Hmong refugees in Nong Khai, but the Thai authorities have refused to allow them to leave, the Human Right Watch statement said.
Supalak G Khundee