Don't just voice concerns, offer solutions

Wednesday, December 23, 2009

Instead of just expressing their concerns, countries should start offering solutions to resolve the problems faced by the thousands of Hmong being sheltered in Phetchabun's Ban Huay Nam Khao and Nong Khai. If nothing is done soon, this will only develop into another never-ending story.

More than 4,000 ethnic Hmong from Laos have been living in Ban Huay Nam Khao in Phetchabun's Khao Koh district since late 2004. Some of them claim to be close associates of militiamen the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) supported to fight the communists before the fall of Vientiane in 1975. They say they are fleeing suppression back home.

Some of them sneaked out of the Phetchabun shelter to seek protection from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHRC) in Bangkok. However, they were rounded up in late 2006 and sent off to the Nong Khai detention centre. Yet, when the group was close to being repatriated, they started resisting and some international agencies raised objections. Now, there are more than 158 of them, including newborns, at the detention centre.

As for their story about CIA connections, Lao and Thai are not buying it. As far as Thailand is concerned, the Hmong are normal economic migrants and should be sent home.

Thailand began repatriating Hmong refugees from May 2007, with the most recent group sent back just last month.

In addition, Thai authorities want to shutdown the shelter in Ban Huay Nam Khao as soon as possible, because it doesn't have the funds for its upkeep. Even though food and medication is provided by non-governmental organisation Catholic Office for Emergency Relief and Refugees, Thai authorities still need to spend a lot on security and the funds have run dry since September.

The repatriation efforts have not been going too well either because it is against human-rights practice to force them to leave against their will. Most Hmong do not want to return home, and are instead holding out for resettlement in a third country, preferably the United States, where many of their friends and relatives moved to after the Vietnam War.

Meanwhile many countries in the West and international organisations, including the UNHCR, are urging Thailand not to repatriate the Hmong for fear they will be severely punished in Laos. In fact, some countries like Australia have even offered to resettle some 20 Hmong, provided they can obtain the UN "people of concern" status. However the resettlement process has not yet started, and the offer is not much compared to the large population.

On the other hand, Laos insists that ethnic Hmong have never been suppressed and that they will be welcomed back with open arms. Lao deputy chief-of-staff Brig-General Buaxieng Champaphan visited Ban Huay Nam Khao twice this year to guarantee their safety back home.

The general told Hmong representatives that they would not be punished for fleeing the country, but instead will each be given 300,000 kip (Bt1,800), a house and a plot of land for farming upon their return. In fact, he even invited diplomats and journalists to visit the area marked out for Hmong people in Ban Pa Lak in Vientiane province.

Though western countries have officially voiced concerns in a letter sent to the Foreign Ministry on Tuesday, repatriation will most likely not be stopped because the letter did not offer any clear solutions or even commitment to move some of the refugees.

Of course, some, if not all, Hmong refugees are qualified to resettle in a third country, yet no agency has said who would be given the chance to resettle, nor has anybody guaranteed if the influx of Hmong refugees to Thailand will ever be stemmed.


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