Wednesday, December 23, 2009
Hmong refugees are seen at a Thai detention centre in Nongkhai province, northeastern Thailand near the Thai-Laos border, in 2008. Thailand confirmed Wednesday it will send more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to communist Laos, where they fear persecution, by the year's end -- despite serious international concerns about the move.
Thailand confirmed on Wednesday it will send more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to communist Laos, where they fear persecution, by the year's end -- despite serious international concerns about the move.
The group, held in a camp in Huay Nam Khao in northern Phetchabun province, are seeking political asylum based on claims they face persecution from the Lao regime because they fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.
"Thailand will complete repatriation of the Hmongs at Huay Nam Khao within 2009 because that is the government policy as discussed with Laos," said defence ministry spokesman Colonel Thanathip Sawangsaeng.
The confirmation came despite recent ministerial talks on the issue with Bangkok-based diplomats and a senior US delegation to Thailand.
US Assistant Secretary of State Eric Schwartz, head of the department of population, refugees and migration, left the kingdom Wednesday morning after a visit that included a trip to a Hmong camp.
"Part of what he was doing here was talking about the Hmong issue," said US Embassy spokeswoman Cynthia Brown.
On Tuesday European diplomats in Bangkok met Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya to voice concerns about the deportation, said Liselott Agerlid from the Swedish embassy, on behalf of the European Union.
She said they were "particularly concerned" that another group of 158 Hmong held in Nongkhai province, who have been granted UN refugee status and offered resettlement in Western countries, could be sent back to Laos.
Thailand says the thousands held in Phetchabun are economic migrants, and has refused access for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to assess if any are in fact political refugees.
The UNHCR and diplomats said they understand a number of them could qualify as refugees, and as such should only be returned on a voluntary basis.
Although Colonel Thanathip said Thailand would not use force, there were reports Wednesday that the army had significantly boosted troop numbers in Phetchabun overnight.
"They came on about 20 buses and after that more than 29 big trucks. Now there are about 4,000 soldiers," a 35-year-old Hmong man told AFP by mobile phone from within the camp, asking not to be named.
Sunai Phasuk, a Thailand analyst at Human Rights Watch, said he had also received reports of the troop increase.
"It is worrying that while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs seems to feel international pressure, the army is doing the opposite," he said.