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Thailand: Repatriation of Hmong to Laos Must be Voluntary

Lionel Rosenblatt

The following op-ed appeared in the Bangkok Post.

The Thai government has launched a dangerous trial balloon in its efforts to repatriate several thousand Hmong from Laos. If the international community does not weigh in rapidly and effectively with the Thai government, many Hmong will be forced back to Laos where they will face possible persecution.

Most of the 8,000 Hmong from Laos are in Thailand's Petchabun province. Also under threat of forced repatriation are 150 or more Hmong recognized as refugees by the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) who are being held in wretched conditions for more than a year in a detention center in Nongkhai, perilously close to the crossing point to Laos. These refugees have all been offered opportunities to resettle in third countries, but Thailand has refused to consider these offers.

Several days ago, the Thai government returned ten Hmong from Petchabun to Laos -- all supposedly "volunteers." It seems that in at least one case, a Hmong woman with five children was put on the bus going back to Laos but without her children. Fortunately, Thai authorities at the last moment at the border took her off the bus. Several Hmong informed that they were on the next Thai list of volunteers did not know they had "volunteered." Médecins Sans Frontières, the NGO in charge of the camp in Petchabun, has expressed very serious concerns about the grim future facing the refugees there.

Thailand should immediately cease forced repatriation of the Hmong to Laos. The Hmong played a vital role in the U.S.-led war in Indochina by stalling North Vietnamese forces from taking over Laos. In that process the Hmong fighters took per capita losses far in excess of those suffered by U.S. forces in Vietnam. A significant proportion of the Hmong who fled to Thailand’s Petchabun province have ties to that war effort or are fighters who only recently abandoned their last ditch Hmong resistance in Laos. Certainly such Hmong meet the key criterion for international refugee status-- a well-founded fear of persecution, if returned to their country of origin, in this case Laos. There are also non-refugees among the Hmong in Petchabun who crossed for a better life or to join relatives abroad.

Following the fall of the American-backed governments in Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam, Thailand has generally been tolerant of the Indochinese refugees fleeing and over a million refugees crossed into Thailand or were given safe-haven on its borders. The international community responded to this generosity by either resettling almost all of those who entered Thailand to third countries or in assisting their voluntary return to their homelands, as was the case with most of the Cambodian refugees who chose to return home. Thailand deservedly has received much international acclaim for its role as the leading country of asylum during the Indochinese exodus.

While the Thai government says it has completed refugee screening of the 8,000 Hmong, this process has not been transparent nor subject to any consultation or monitoring to determine whether it conformed to international standards of refugee protection. Of particular concern for many involved with the US war effort in Indochina, is that some Hmong with wartime ties to the U.S. as well as recent combatants against the repressive Lao government have not been screened in as refugees, this may be due to a flaw in the screening that did not consider or focus on such individual histories. So the most endangered Hmong are, in many cases, the most likely to be subject to return to Laos. This is widely seen, in part, as Thailand bowing to pressure from Lao officials, especially those in the Lao military wishing to get such refugees into their hands.

The Hmong crisis in Thailand can be resolved in an acceptable manner if the following steps are taken:

  • True voluntary repatriation can be put in place immediately with some form of international access to the process.
  • A fair and more transparent review of screening for those Hmong who have been screened out -- and who so request -- to insure that those with a well-founded fear of persecution are not returned to Laos.
  • The international community, led by the U.S., should agree to resettle the Hmong identified as refugees. Thanks to UNHCR and other efforts, several countries already have expressed a willingness to do so. The U.S. Congress, cognizant of the history of the Hmong and other freedom fighters, recently acted to permit the resettlement of Hmong and some other combatants struggling against non-democratic governments, which now needs to be implemented by the Executive branch. Jumpstarting this provision, could literally save the lives of many refugees at risk, like the Hmong.
  • Forced return of non-refugees to Laos can begin, when the Lao government permits some form of international access to those who are returned.

For the future, the flow of refugees from Laos should wind down sharply. Only about a thousand Hmong are still holding out. Some of this small number may well try to flee to Thailand and perhaps some will continue to surrender; more would do so with international monitoring.

A mechanism to leave Laos for such persons and for legitimate migrants should be put in place; such an orderly departure program worked well in Vietnam. The Vietnamese government, with its close ties to Laos, could be helpful by prodding the Lao government to move to such a program.

Meanwhile, international influence with Thailand should be exerted immediately by governments, especially the U.S. (and including the Congress) to insure that the Thai trial balloon does not lead to further forced repatriation of Hmong refugees.

This would be a great shame for the refugees, as well as a great shame for Thailand. In the final chapter of the exodus from Indochina, Thailand should not be seen around the world to be blotting its widely praised refugee record.

Lionel Rosenblatt is president emeritus of Refugees International.