Thursday, January 28, 2010
A group of 158 UNHCR-recognized Hmong refugees were promised they’d be allowed to resettle in third-countries. That was supposed to be the deal which the UNHCR, Thai and Lao governments had agreed upon, according to a Thai government spokesperson. The UNHCR was supposed to have immediate access to the group after the Thai military forced them back to Laos on December 28, 2009.
On the day these refugees were to be deported, representatives from the U.S, Australia, Canada and Netherlands showed up trying to allay the refugees’ fears by explaining that a deal had been brokered with the Lao government. The representatives assured them that they’d be allowed to resettle in third-countries within a month upon returning to Laos and that the UNHCR would have access to them during that period.
Well, things turned out quite the contrary. Thirty days after being deported the secretive Lao government continues to deny the UNHCR access to the group claiming that these returnees no longer want to be resettled in third-countries as originally agreed upon.
On Monday, General Bouasieng Champaphanh, Chairman of the Lao-Thai border security sub-committee, held a press conference in Vientiane regarding the fate of these Hmong returnees. The event was staged for diplomats and international media to help quell concerns they may have regarding the treatment of these returnees.
Just two weeks ago, foreign journalists reported visiting a secret camp where returnees were being held behind razor wire fences. When the journalists approached the camp, Lao authorities searched and interrogated them, checking their cameras for any unauthorized photos of the camp, telling them not to come back.
General Bouasieng’s recent press conference seemed in part to address this embarrassing issue. Lao government propaganda photos posted on flickr http://www.flickr.com/photos/mofa/4308444338/ show a reporter from Radio Free Asia interviewing the General, who is quoted as saying “There is no secret jail at all in Borlikhamxay province. I can take you to visit the province tomorrow to find out the information first hand if you want,”
Most likely the General made this bold statement because the razor wire camp was a returnee transit camp and more than likely empty by now. Currently, over 3200 of the returnees have been sent to a site called Pabeua. It’s located in eastern Paksan district, Borikhamsai province, roughly several hours drive down dirt roads. Run by at least 100 Lao troops, it might more accurately be described as an internment camp, as no one is allowed to visit the area and residents have no freedom of movement.
Roughly 120 UNHCR-recognized refugees are believed to be held here. They were supposed to have been resettled in third countries by now but the Lao government continues to deny access to the group telling the world that these refugees have decided to stay in Laos.
More disgraceful than the Lao government’s secretiveness regarding this matter is the fact that those third countries who reached out to resettle these Hmong have not lived up to their end of the bargain. Hopefully, in the coming days, they will take some serious diplomatic action to secure the safety of these Hmong refugees.
They need to demand immediate unfettered access to these returnees before it’s too late rather than be a pawn in the Lao government's continuing propaganda campaign.