In central Thailand, over five thousand Lao Hmong refugees are facing repatriation to Laos despite their pleas to remain in Thailand or find asylum in a third country. They originally came to Thailand at the end of the Vietnam war. The Thai Government recently announced that it plans to complete the repatriation by mid-year.
Hmong refugee children in Thailand
The five thousand five hundred Lao Hmong refugees have been living in the Huay Nam Khao camp, 370 kilometers north from Bangkok for the past two years. Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya both recently reaffirmed the government’s determination to have the Lao Hmong repatriated under a joint border agreement overseen by the Thai and Lao military.
Human Rights Watch representative, Sunai Pasuk says there appears little chance of a change in the Thai Government policy: "It is very clear that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has reaffirmed its commitment of Thailand to repatriate Lao Hmong back to Laos, regardless of the lack of transparency inside Laos as to the point that we do not know what happens to the returnees after they cross the Thai-Lao border."
Medicins Sans Frontières (Doctors Without Borders) is the only international organization authorized to work in the camp. Gilles Isard, the MSF country director in Thailand, says tensions are building as people fear being repatriated:
"People live in fear of being arrested for any minor reason", he says. "You can be arrested for a minor reason and the punishment might be to be sent back to Laos."
Frustrations triggered protests at the camp in June last year. A large portion of the camp was torched. A bid by thousands in the camp to start a protest march was stopped by the Thai army. Later eight hundred of the protestors were sent back to Laos.
At present around 150 of the Hmong return to Laos voluntarily each month. But Isard says there is a core of the refugees who say they will resist any moves to be sent back. Further protests cannot be ruled out, says Isard: "There are people that say that they will never accept return. And what are they ready to do is not clear, but they claim they will do anything but they will not return to Laos. New protests can happen because some of the people are really desperate", he says, adding that there is a rumour that something similar to last year's protest could happen again in the camp.
Thai army is being watched
Isard believes the Thai military wants to handle the situation carefully given the MSF presence and the international attention Thailand has received over the treatment of Myanmar’s Muslim Rohingya refugees in southern Thailand.
But Human Rights Watch’s Sunai is concerned the Thai military may revert to force to repatriate the refugees. "It is a real tragedy that the Thai military fail to understand this natural fear of the Lao Hmong and instead respond with heavy handed suppression", says Sunai.
The Lao Hmong fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War. At war’s end in 1975 thousands crossed into Thailand. Many were granted residence in the US, Australia and other nations. Human rights groups have accused the Lao government of discrimination and abuse against the Hmong, claims the government has denied. Many live in poverty.
Both Thailand and Laos argue the refugees are economic migrants and are not victims of political persecution.