Monday, August 3, 2009
By The Nation
Published on August 3, 2009
Refugees resist repatriation plans as three nations push to decide their fate
The United States should offer some technical assistance to Thailand and Laos to handle the issue of Hmong refugees being sheltered in Phetchabun's Ban Huay Nam Khao and detained in Nong Khai to help them lead new lives faster.
Walking through, smiling and issuing press statements to voice humanitarian concerns will not help them escape their bad situation.
Samuel Witten, principal deputy assistant secretary for the State Department's Bureau of Population, Refugees and Migration, led a US delegation to visit the Hmong both in Phetchabun and Nong Khai last week but again failed to make any change for the ethnic minority.
His visit did not help solve the problem but made the issue more complicated, as some Hmong misunderstood that Washington had sent a signal to take them for resettlement in the US.
Rather than announcing to all at the camp what the US wants to do or does not want to do, the US officials chose to meet quietly with Thai military officers and some representatives of the Hmong.
A Hmong who met with the US officials told reporters that he got the message from the US officials that Washington would not accept them for resettlement.
However it was unclear whether the Hmong representatives who met the US officials would relay the message accurately to their followers in the camp.
Some Hmong told the media later that they did not know why the US officials visited the camp. Some said they did not believe the US would not take the Hmong for resettlement as their relatives in the US called to tell them that they still have a chance to seek better lives in America.
Rather than talking to thousands of Hmong directly, Witten issued a press statement on Friday to wrap up his visit, saying the US government has no plans for a large-scale resettlement programme for Lao Hmong in Thailand but the US Refugee Admissions Programme will consider referrals on a case-by-case basis.
Witten called for the Nong Khai Hmong, who have been detained by Thai authorities for over two-and-a-half years, not to be returned involuntarily to Laos and instead, for humanitarian reasons, to be released immediately from the Nong Khai facility.
The US delegation demanded an appropriate and transparent screening process to identify those detainees who may have protection concerns. Those Lao Hmong who are found to be in need of protection should not be forcibly returned to Laos, it said.
The Hmong refugee issue is complicated and could not be solved easily by a statement from the US.
Thailand has sheltered thousands of Hmong since late 2004. The Hmong claim they are close associates of the US Central Intelligence Agency's secret operatives who fought against the communist movement before the fall of Vientiane in 1975. They say they fled their homeland due to suppression from Lao authorities and want to seek asylum in third countries, notably the US.
Some sneaked out of the camp and tried to seek protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok but were arrested, and 158 Hmong are now being held in Nong Khai for illegal entry.
The Hmong in the Ban Huay Nam Khao shelter could be classified into three groups. Most are really economic migrants from Laos. The second group comprises Hmong who were left over after the closure of the Tham Krabok monastery and the US resettlement programme in 2005. The last group with some 500 members might really have some connection with the CIA's fighters.
Since Thailand and Laos agreed in 2006 to repatriate the Hmong to Laos, more than 2,900 have been sent back. The Thai government set a timeframe to return the 4,645 remaining people by the end of September. The project is backed by a budget of Bt26 million.
However the repatriation plan could not be enforced easily since it runs against the Hmong's freewill, notably those who claimed they are close associates of the CIA and fear suppression from the Lao government.
Brig-General Buaxieng Champaphan, co-chairman of the Thai-Lao general border subcommittee, who visited the Hmong in Ban Huay Nam Khao in February, dismissed the allegation and guaranteed that no Hmong would be punished upon return.
Buaxieng is set to lead a Lao delegation to visit the Hmong again on Friday to convince them to return home. The Lao authorities have prepared houses, land and infrastructure for the Hmong returnees. The facility for them in Vientiane province's Ban Pha Lak has been visited by outsiders including diplomats, journalists and officials from Thailand and the US several times.
The problem is that no Hmong in Thailand believes Laos. They resist the repatriation plan and retain the hope of resettlement with assistance from their former boss, Uncle Sam.
Rather than simply calling for transparency in the screening process, Washington should make clear to them who are qualified for resettlement;which cases could be applied and which cases could not.
The CIA, which is supposed to have a solid database on its Hmong secret fighters, should offer its hand to help verify who really has connections with the secret war. Attention and visits by officials from Washington under the name of humanitarian concern do not help fix any problem but only inspire the Hmong to continue their dream and prolong the waiting time.
Like everyone else, the Hmong have the right to lead better lives, rather than subsist in shelters and detention centres while facing an unclear future.