The Hmong refugees in Thailand:
Waiting for the date for assault from the Laotian authorities
On 20 September 2007, the military government of Thailand signed an agreement with the Laotian authorities to deport over 7,700 ethnic Hmong refugees from Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Phetchabun province of Thailand to Laos before the end of 2008. Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont stated on 6 August 2007 that the Hmong refugees entered Thailand “illegally” and failure to send them back to Laos would create a “never-ending problem” for Thailand.
The Hmongs had fought alongside the United States against the Lao government during the Vietnam War until the United States was defeated in 1975. More than 3,00,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, had fled to Thailand to escape persecution by the communist regime. Most of these refugees were either repatriated to Laos or resettled in other countries, mainly in the United States. In 2005, the United States took 15,000 Hmong refugees from Thailand but refused to accept any more refugees.
I. Lack of independent monitoring mission
A total of 7,785 Hmong refugees have been living at the Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp since late 2004. Of them, about 2,000 are inmates of the now-closed Wat Tham Krabok camp in Saraburi, Thailand. On 24 June 2007, the army relocated 7,653 Lao-born Hmong refugees from Ban Huay Nam Khao camp to a new camp at Tambon Kheg-Noi, four kilometres away. The journalists have no access to this camp.
On 21 September 2007, Lt. Gen. Nipat Thonglek, director of Thailand's Supreme Command Office's Department of Border Affairs and also co-chairman of the Sub-General Border Committee stated that the screening process of the 7,785 Hmong refugees would be completed by the end of 2007. The screening will determine who shall be repatriated to Laos. However, as the Thai government treats all the Hmong refugees as “illegal immigrants”, almost all of them would be forcibly deported to Laos unless there is intervention from other countries.
According to the 20th September 2007 agreement, the refugees would be sent to their homes or to a designated site in Kasi district in Laos, 200 kilometers north of capital Vientiane. Both the Thai and Laotian governments have agreed to sponsor the project to repatriate the Hmong refugees.
There is no independent monitoring mission to monitor screening of the refugees and their repatriation to Laos. Both Thai and Laotian authorities have been maintaining that the Hmong problem was a bilateral issue between Thailand and Laos and rejected any independent observer. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) repeatedly requested to take part in the screening process to verify if the Hmong refugees' fears of persecution are genuine. So far, UNHCR has not been granted access to the refugees.
The absence of involvement of the UN agencies or international human rights organisations in the repatriation process makes the entire process illegitimate. There are greater risks that the refugees will suffer prosecution at the hands of the Laotian authorities once refouled.
II. Forcible refoulement continues
Although Thailand is not a signatory of the 1951 UN Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees, the Thai government has international obligations to protect the fundamental rights of the refugees. But Thailand has never treated the Hmong refugees sympathetically and always branded them as “illegal immigrants”. Many asylum seekers have been illegally detained. On 20 August 2007, the UNHCR called for the release of the 149 Hmong refugees including 90 children stating that they have been illegally detained in “truly inhumane conditions” in two small and dark cells at the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre run by the Thai Immigration Ministry since December 2006.
On 26 January 2007, 16 Hmongs were deported to Laos. On 30 January 2007, Thailand halted forcible repatriation of another 153 Hmong refugees after the United States and other Western countries assured to take them.
On 18 May 2007, Thailand and Laos signed the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement which provided that Thailand will deport any Lao Hmong asylum seeker upon arrival. On the basis of the agreement, Thailand deported 31 Hmong refuges to Laos on 25 May 2007, and 163 more on 9 June 2007. Neither the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) nor any international human rights organization has been given access to these refouled refugees. Hence, their whereabouts and conditions after refoulment are not known.
Many Hmong refugees have also reportedly been evicted from their camps as part of the forcible repatriation. They have been left stranded near the Thailand-Laos border in northern Thailand without food and shelter. As the Thai authorities have imposed a penalty of up to five years in prison and a 50,000 baht (US$1,200) fine if any one provided shelter to the “illegal immigrants”, the Thai landlords have also expelled some 6,500 of the Hmong people who had taken shelter in bamboo huts at Huay Nam Khao village. In addition, the government blamed the Hmongs of creating law and order problems for their alleged involvement in illicit drug trafficking, and launching attacks against Laos from the Thai soil. These tactics have been used to expel the Hmongs.
III. A new smokescreen for refoulement
The Thai military has secretly completed relocation of 7,653 Lao-born Hmong refugees from Ban Huay Nam Khao camp to a new camp at Tambon Kheg-Noi, four kilometres away on 24 June 2007. Of the 7,653 Lao-born Hmongs relocated, 40 per cent are children. The conditions of the refugees in the new settlement are not known as the army has barred the media from new relocation site.
The journalists have been issued “guidelines” by the army which forced them to portray the Thai officials favourably, to “refrain from reporting officials' bad treatment, if any, of the Hmong”, to discourage further influx of Hmong refugees, to report about the negative consequences of the influx of refugees on the local population and prohibited the media from highlighting the legal status of the Hmong refugees under the local or international law, among others.
Many Hmong leaders have been summoned by the military officers for questioning after they gave interviews to local and international media against the government's plan of forcible refoulement in order to intimidate them.
The agreement signed on 20 September 2007 by Thailand and Laos is nothing but a smokescreen to deport over 7,700 ethnic Hmong refugees from Ban Huay Nam. International community must intervene with the royal government of Thailand not to forcibly repatriate the Hmong refugees, to allow the UNHCR to monitor the screening process and provide them protection as refugees in Thailand and withdraw the socalled media guidelines and provide unrestricted access to the journalists including foreign journalists and credible humanitarian organizations to the refugee camps.