Saturday, January 2, 2010
HANOI (AFP) – Laos insisted Wednesday that the international community need not fear for thousands of ethnic Hmong expelled from Thailand, after the United Nations and US lawmakers sought access to the deportees.
Bangkok sparked outrage on Monday when it defied global criticism and used troops to forcibly repatriate around 4,500 Hmong, including women and children, from camps on the border with communist Laos.
The Hmong, a Southeast Asian ethnic group, were seeking asylum in Thailand saying they risked persecution by the Lao regime for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s.
"These people, they have nothing to worry about them. They are Lao people. They have come back to their own country," Lao government spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing told AFP by telephone from the capital Vientiane.
UN chief Ban Ki-moon voiced regret Tuesday over the expulsions and the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said it had filed a formal request with Laos for access to the Hmong.
Four US senators from Minnesota and Wisconsin, home to much of the US Hmong community, urged immediate and ongoing international monitoring of the resettlement and reintegration.
"On what grounds is UNHCR requesting?" Khenthong said. "It's a problem between Thailand and UNHCR. It's not a problem with Laos."
Thailand and Laos both say the Hmong were illegal economic immigrants and not political refugees as they contended, dismissing concerns by diplomats that they have genuine claims.
One of the deported Hmong contacted AFP by telephone from the central Lao province of Bolikhamsay to say that they had not been mistreated since their arrival but feared for the future.
"My family is OK, everybody is OK," said the 35-year-old man, who was deported with his wife, mother and five children. "But I worry for the situation in the future. I don't know if it is safe."
The man, who asked not to be identified, said they were being held at a detention centre and did not know how long they would be held there but that Lao authorities had made a "new camp" dozens of miles (kilometres) away.
Khenthong said, however, that more than 3,000 Hmong had already returned to Laos in previous years.
"Their lives are much better than in the detention camp in Thailand," he said.
Foreign delegations can apply to visit the returnees, but the newly-arrived Hmong are still being interviewed by Lao authorities to determine where in Laos they wish to go, Khenthong said.
He said they will be given free transport, a year's supply of rice, and other reintegration assistance.
Thailand on Monday also sent back a separate group of 158 Hmong with recognised UN refugee status, in a move the UNHCR said was a breach of international law.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya tried to quell international concerns.
"Laos has promised Thailand that they will give good treatment to these people. They will not be jailed and they will be given passports and a chance to meet with third countries that could resettle them," Kasit told reporters.
"We are confident that they will proceed as promised."
Kasit said the international community should also "help develop Laos to strengthen Laos" if they wanted to ensure the good treatment of the Hmong.
Thousands of Hmong, a highland people, sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and formed a CIA-funded "secret army" when the conflict spread to Laos.
When the Communists took power in Laos in 1975, Hmong fighters feared the regime would hunt them down for working with the Americans. About 150,000 fled and found homes abroad, mainly in the United States.
Others hid in the Lao jungle, some fighting a low-level rebellion that has been largely quashed. Thousands have fled to neighbouring Thailand, which also backed the United States in the war.