Disgruntled medics to quit Hmong refugee camp

Thursday, May 21, 2009

Published: 21/05/2009 at 09:03 AM

The Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) yesterday announced its withdrawal from the Hmong camp in Huay Nam Khao, Phetchabun province, after operating there for nearly four years.

The reason, they say, is the Thai military's restrictions and coercive tactics.

The withdrawal is a further embarrassment for the Abhisit adminstration, which recently suffered a bruised image due to the Navy's inhumane push-back of the Rohingya boat people.

Gilles Isard, MSF's head of mission in Thailand, said the Thai military's scare tactics to pressure ethnic Lao Hmong to accept a forced return to Laos and its intensifying restrictions on MSF's activities, such as trying to force the organisation to temporarily cut food distribution to the refugee population and forcing patients to pass through military control to obtain medical care, have compelled his organisation to terminate its medical relief programme in the Huay Nam Khao camp.

The MSF, as the sole international presence in the camp since 2005, has made a final appeal to the Thai and Laotian governments to immediately stop deporting the Hmong currently in Huay Nam Khao and to allow an independent third party to review the refugees' claims for protection and to monitor any repatriation, noted Mr Isard.

The message, however, is unlikely to deter the Thai-Lao agreement to clear the camp by the end of this year. The two countries earlier planned to send back the then 8,000 Hmong to Laos within 2008, despite the international outcry.

Incentives such as rice and other staples and allocation of a small plot of land were given by the Lao government to those returning to their domiciles and to the government-designated Kasi province. Still, a majority of the camp residents were not persuaded.

The efforts were strengthened this year with a promise from Lao deputy chief-of-staff Brig Gen Buaxieng Champaphan that no criminal charges would be brought against the Hmong.

Despite an allegedly heavy-handed approach by the overseeing military unit, the Khao Kho Task Force, some 4,750 Hmongs still reside in the camp.

Unicef, which has been approved by the Interior Ministry to conduct humanitarian services for the Hmong, is in close consultation with the Thai government to find a new ``service provider'' to replace the MSF by the end of this month.

``The MSF withdrawal has no impact on the camp's operations. After all, the Thai government has to thank them for taking care of these illegal immigrants. But they are well aware that we set a target for closing the camp on Sept 30, so sooner or later the MSF had to go. They might not want to witness the camp-clearing operations,'' said a senior military officer from Bangkok.

Col Kit Kimwongsa, deputy head of the Khao Kho Task Force, said initially that the MSF threatened to pull out its operations on Tuesday but Unicef intervened for the sake of smooth humanitarian operations.

Col Kit conceded that there were differences in work approaches towards the Hmong but there were reasons for the military restrictions, such as asking the Hmong to get medical service from the front door of the main building and not through the back door, which has been used for Hmong escapes.

As field officer, Col Kit suggested that a majority of the Hmong want employment opportunities. Thailand and Laos, therefore, should work out a plan to re-send the capable Hmong back to Thailand as a work force.

``Out of the 4,750 remaining, there are some 1,500 potential Hmong workers. We can provide a month-long training for them as well as a pledge to accept them back through legal channels. This will be a persuasive measure for them to return to Laos first and apply for work back in Thailand legally,'' he said.

Col Kit believed that the incentive would save the 50-million-baht humanitarian budget and some 13 million baht which the MSF and the Task Force, respectively, have been spending on the camp annually.

However, high-level Thai and Lao authorities do not want to hear any fresh ideas as they are firmly adhering to the agreed accord that the remaining Hmong must to be repatriated to Laos.

``The shorter the Hmong stay, the better for Thailand since they are linked to illicit activities such as the illegal lottery and drug trafficking,'' remarked a lieutenant-general from Bangkok.

A senior foreign ministry official conceded that the international NGO's withdrawal would put Thailand back in the international spotlight.

``But there is no other way. We either have to back away or move forward on the Hmong

[both from Phetchabun and Nong Khai]. It's the status quo. Hopefully, quiet diplomacy will gradually move things forward along the lines of what we've agreed with Laos,'' the source said.

Thailand has already been strongly criticised by UN refugee officials and Hmong advocacy groups in the United States over its treatment of 158 Hmong, who have been stuck in crammed cells at Nong Khai's Immigration Detention Centre for nearly three years.

Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya had to back-track on his statement given to the press after a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton in April that the Hmong in Nong Khai were eligible for resettlement in third countries.

Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nouanthasing bluntly told the Thai minister that no ethnic Hmong from Laos should be regarded as ``political asylum seekers'' eligible for resettlement and that both governments had previously agreed that the Hmong Lao held in both Nong Khai and Phetchabun were considered illegal migrants and not refugees.

Mr Kasit later admitted that the fate of the 158 people from Laos detained at Nong Khai was up to Vientiane.

The UNHCR and recipient countries including the US, Australia, the Netherlands and Canada wanted to process the resettlement of the 158 Hmong since the Surayud administration, but Thailand has somewhat complicated the matter by promising Vientiane that they would be sent back to Laos.

A bid to forcibly deport the group _ all of whom have UN refugee status _ caused a near riot last year, when they strongly resisted efforts to be repatriated. Lao officials have been urging the group to return home as well, but the Hmong leaders have repeatedly refused, saying they would rather commit suicide than be forced to return.

Thanks to the renewed Hmong fiasco, the living conditions of 158 Hmong seem to have eased up a bit.

``The kids are permitted to run around within a small playground. The parents can breathe more easily in the crowded detention rooms,'' a foreign ministry official said.

Vientiane still insists that if any resettlement of these 158 Hmong needed to be done, the third countries must seek official permission from them and that the Hmong must be returned first to Laos.

Now the military has been working quietly to convince the 158 Hmong to return to Laos.

They claimed that some 30 of them pledged to abandon the PoC (person of concern) status in exchange for a safe return to Laos and a promise that their application to third countries would be later granted by Vientiane.

No matter how it turns out, the fate of the 158 Hmong in Nong Khai and the remaining 4,750 in Phetchabun will remain Thailand's headache.

Any fallout resulting from their plight could lead to more shame and possible condemnation for the country.

The Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Phetchabun province, which once held 8,000 Hmong refugees. The military is very keen to send the remaining 4,750 Hmong people back to Laos and shut down the camp.

Hmong people taking refuge in Phetchabun's Huay Nam Khao of Khao Kho district perform a traditional ceremony begging for a peaceful life. They claim that sending them back to Laos would only mean death.


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