Friday, May 22, 2009
Hmong refugees at a Thai detention centre in Nong Khai province near Thai-Laos border
By Shaun Tandon
WASHINGTON (AFP) — Hmong activists urged the United States to provide emergency aid to thousands of refugees in Thailand, saying they faced starvation or forced repatriation after the sole charity left their camp.
Paris-based Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), or Doctors Without Borders, said Wednesday it no longer felt it could operate in the camp where it fed 4,700 Hmong, accusing Thailand of trying to force the refugees to return to Laos.
Many Hmong, a hill people, fought alongside the United States during the Vietnam War and Laos' communist government continues to hunt them down. MSF said refugees who fled to Thailand recounted killings, gang-rape and malnutrition inflicted by Laotian forces.
The Lao Veterans of America, which represents Hmong and other Laotians who supported the United States, went door-to-door in the US Congress seeking aid for the refugees at the Huai Nam Khao camp in Thailand.
Both the veterans and MSF charged that the Thai military was trying to intimidate the refugees in hopes they would leave the four-year-old border camp.
"We don't want them to have to go back to Laos so the current government can butcher them," said Colonel Wangyee Vang, head of the veterans group.
"We want those who have come out of Laos to be able to settle in third countries, especially the United States of America," Vang said in Congress before aging Lao and Hmong veterans, some clad in US military fatigues.
Philip Smith, executive director of the Center for Public Policy Analysis, which promotes Hmong rights, called on Congress to act or for President Barack Obama to tap emergency funds to help the refugees.
"This is a crisis and we are calling today on the Obama administration and the US Congress to intervene with emergency food and medicine," he said.
Smith said he had already heard that some refugees were attempting suicide rather than risk repatriation.
"MSF was the only group at the camp so with their departure, the Lao Hmong refugees will either starve to death or be forced back to a country that pursues them in the jungles and has persecuted them and killed their families," he said.
The Nobel Prize-winning humanitarian group said it was leaving the camp after unsuccessfully appealing to the United States, France and the United Nations to try to improve the refugees' plight.
MSF said Thailand and Laos wanted to close the camp by year-end. It estimated more than 1,500 Hmong have already been forced back to Laos since December 2005 and said there were credible reports that some were tortured.
It also complained that outside groups including the UN High Commissioner for Refugees were denied access to the camp.
Four US senators earlier this year wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton urging her to look into the camp and to press Laos, with which the United States restored normal trade relations in 2004.
The senators said Thailand should not deport Hmong who have fears of persecution and called for a transparent screening process that meets international standards.
The senators who signed the letter included Democrats Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl of the Midwestern state of Wisconsin, one of the major homes of the nearly 250,000 Hmong in the United States.