Friday, May 29, 2009
By Brian McCartan
- The pullout under protest of Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF) from the Huay Nam Khao refugee camp in Petchabun in Thailand
is a slap in the face to Thailand and Laos, both of which claim their repatriation of Hmong refugees is voluntary. To be sure, many of the refugees are actually economic migrants, but without a transparent screening process it is impossible to tell refugees with serious concerns for their safety from migrants.
MSF's departure is another human-rights embarrassment for Thailand's Abhisit Vejjajiva government which earlier this year came under intense international criticism over revelations its military had pushed Muslim Rohingya refugees from Myanmar back out to sea. Thailand's military, however, appears undeterred and has announced a September 30 date for closing the camp. Critics allege the date was set to make sure all the Hmong were repatriated well before the start of the 2009 Southeast Asia Games in Vientiane, Laos, in December.
Huay Nam Khao camp was set up in 2005 after several thousand Hmong began arriving in Thailand in 2004 claiming persecution from the Lao government. MSF began working in the camp in 2005 providing food and medical relief. The original refugees were later joined by others and the camp population eventually reached a peak of 7,800 people. Thailand had believed the Lao refugee situation had ended with the closure of the last camps in the late 1990s and the agreement of the United States in 2003 to accept remaining Hmong refugees sheltering at Tham Krabok monastery in Saraburi province.
MSF, which remained the single independent non-governmental organization working in the camp, announced their pullout on May 20 at the same time they released a report detailing their reasons for their actions. In their report, MSF alleges that the Thai military is using increasing restrictions and coercive methods to pressure some 4,700 ethnic Hmong refugees to renounce their claims of protection and return to Laos.
Among the tactics MSF alleges the military is using against the refugees are the arbitrary imprisonment of leaders to pressure other refugees to "volunteer" to return, temporary halts in food distribution and the forcing of refugees to pass through a military checkpoint before entering the MSF clinic. The checkpoint, the MSF report says, intimidates refugees and restricts access to health care. These claims are echoed by US-based Hmong human rights organizations including the Hmong International Human Rights Watch and independent researchers who have been documenting the situation of the refugees for several years.
Heightened anxiety, psychological distress and fear among the refugee population as a result of these measures were noted by MSF in their report. Increasing desperation among the refugees has resulted in hunger strikes, self mutilation and arson in attempts to call attention to their plight.
In June 2008, some 800 people were forcibly returned to Laos after around 5,000 camp residents staged a protest march to bring attention to their plight. Among those repatriated were MSF staff members and several Hmong leaders who disappeared until an October 2008 Human Rights Watch report critical of their detention resulted in their release by the Lao authorities.
Repatriation of Hmong increased this year with approximately 200 being sent back per month with a peak of 500 in March. Over 1,500 Hmong have been forcibly repatriated since December 2005.
Although the Lao government claims it is providing for the returnees and documents their trips home on the Internet image hosting site Flickr, several have been arbitrarily detained and human-rights groups say there are credible reports of torture. Many Hmong cite the disappearance in 2005 of a group of young boys and girls sent back by the Thai authorities as a major source of their fears. The girls later resurfaced with stories of being detained and sexually abused while in custody - the boys have still not been heard from.
Lao Army Deputy Chief of Staff Brigadier General Buaxieng Champaphan announced this year that no criminal charges will be brought against returning Hmong. Laos who have left the country illegally to seek work in Thailand have in the past been detained by Lao authorities on their return.
Hmong refugees say that they will be punished and even executed should they be returned because the Lao government is still angry with them for siding with the US during the "Secret War" in Laos in the 1960s and early 1970s. They claim that while Hmong who sided with the communists live free, those who supported the US are discriminated against, arbitrarily arrested and sometimes executed. Some Hmong have chosen to continue the fight against the government living on the run in the jungle-clad mountains of northern Laos. They have become known as the "jungle Hmong".
The Lao and Thai governments maintain that the refugees are economic migrants and as such have no real fears. The Lao government further claims that Huay Nam Khao camp acts as a magnet for Hmong who have heard that by claiming persecution they will be allowed to resettle in the United States. Many advocates for the Hmong agree that there are many in the camp who never fought for the US, are connected with anyone who did or where ever "jungle Hmong".
A spokesman for the Lao government showed this correspondent last year dossiers collected on some of the returnees indicating that they were not Hmong and that at least one woman came from a coastal region in Vietnam. They are believed to have been persuaded to come to the camp by brokers who arrange for a fee to go to the camp promising that a stay there will lead to a good life in the US. Others have been convinced to go to the camp by relatives already in America.
Although many may be simply seeking a way out of poverty, others have credible stories of persecution which have been backed up by reports from international human-rights groups such as Human Rights Watch and Amnesty International as well as independent journalists. According to the MSF report, many of the refugees tell related stories of "fleeing violent attacks and persecution, witnessing the murder of family members, suffering rape, surviving bullet and shrapnel wounds and enduring malnutrition and disease".
To back up their claims, refugees have displayed scars from bullet and shrapnel wounds and MSF says they have documented at least 181 refugees with physical scars. The aid group says their mental health program admitted 286 patients, most of whom talked of witnessing the death of a family member or friend, suffering torture and enduring starvation in the mountains.
Various estimates put the number of Hmong still on the run in the mountains of Laos at between several hundred and a thousand. Researchers and journalists who have been able to visit the groups say that they have been reduced to living on whatever can be scavenged in the forest including insects, tree bark and roots.
Photos show many of them dressed in little better than rags and carrying weapons that are leftovers from the "Secret War". They have kept fighting partly for survival, but also at the behest of Hmong groups in the US and elsewhere who encourage them while living comfortably in exile. Critics within the Hmong community note with irony that the jungle Hmong have been provided satellite phones to report their situation to supporters in the US, but yet are bedraggled, sick, malnourished and fighting a struggle they cannot hope to win. No one has told them to stop.
Until recently, the US government has largely looked the other way and allowed the situation to happen. A change only occurred in June 2007 when agents from the US Federal Bureau of Investigation arrested former Hmong guerrilla leader General Vang Pao and several of his associates along with a former US Army colonel on charges of conspiracy to overthrow the government of Laos. Vang Pao's defense team, former Central Intelligence Agency officers who fought with the Hmong and the American-Hmong community have come together to denounce the charges claiming they are a budget justification tactic by an agency that at the time was finding it difficult to locate real terrorist conspiracies.
Human-rights groups and MSF say that there is no way to tell Hmong with legitimate fears of persecution apart from economic migrants without a transparent screening process overseen by a third party. The Thai and Lao governments have refused to allow the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) or any other independent third party to assess refugee protection claims in Huay Nam Khao camp. Instead they have said that the Hmong should go back to Laos and apply for resettlement from there.
An advocate for the Hmong says that at least 414 Hmong originally from the camp were recognized by the UNHCR as refugees in 2005-2006, but only after making the risky move of leaving the camp and coming to Bangkok. Other cases, he says, have been registered, but Thai pressure has meant no final decisions have been made.
Screening processes conducted by the Thai government in December 2007 and January 2008 were closed and, despite repeated requests, the UNHCR was not permitted to monitor the process. Under international norms, the repatriation of refugees should be voluntary and cannot be forced on people fearing for their safety. There must also be guarantees of safety on their return. MSF and human-rights groups say that neither the Lao nor Thai governments have followed these standards and violate the standards of non-refoulment where in individuals fleeing persecution must not be sent back to countries where their lives or freedom is threatened.
In an attempt to ease international fears, the Lao government has arranged several trips by foreign diplomats and UN officials to a village it has set up for returnees at Phalak near Kasi in northern Vientiane province. Critics say the visits are stage managed by the government and do not accurately reflect the situation. Other than these visits the Lao government has not permitted independent monitoring of returnees by the UNHCR or any other organization leaving it open to accusations of disappearances and persecution.
The group with the clearest claims to refugee status is the 158 Hmong locked up in an immigration detention center in Nong Khai in Thailand across from Vientiane. The refugees had previously been granted "person of concern" status from the UNHCR prior to being arrested and shipped to the center.
In April, Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya announced that Thailand would assist the Hmong in Nong Khai to be resettled in third countries. Thailand earlier promised to resettle these refugees in 2006 after the US, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands had agreed to accept them only to later renege on the agreement. This time was no different. After Lao protests, Kasit was forced to backtrack on his statement and announced that the Hmong would first have to go back to Laos and then apply for resettlement in another country.
In its report, MSF accused the UN and Western governments of inaction over the Hmong refugee situation. "Despite more than two years of efforts by MSF, the UN, US, France and other regional powers have failed to take any concrete steps to ensure the protection of the traumatized and vulnerable refugee population confined in Huai Nam Khao camp." It requested that countries such as the US and France which have already resettled Hmong refugees or have said they are willing to should offer alternatives in accordance with international laws to repatriation.
Indeed the US, France and other Western nations have kept strangely quiet about the Hmong issue although they were very vocal in protest over the Rohingyas. Sources close to the situation say that there are some behind-the-scenes negotiations, but they caution that since there is no overt public pressure being placed on either the Thai or Lao governments, little is likely to be achieved. Many believe the US has some responsibility to refugees from a conflict it helped create and whom it promised to protect.
The Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees (COERR) agreed this week to replace MSF in the camp. The Thai and Lao governments have made it clear that the Hmong will be repatriated no matter what, a situation that will leave COERR in the role of simply ensuring that the returnees are as healthy as possible for an unsure future back in Laos.
Brian McCartan is a Chiang Mai-based freelance journalist. He may be reached at firstname.lastname@example.org.