Wednesday, February 3, 2010
A spokesman for Laos' government said Wednesday that United Nations representatives are welcome to visit thousands of ethnic Hmong who were forcibly repatriated from Thailand late last year.
Foreign Ministry spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing told The Associated Press by phone from the capital, Vientiane, that the returnees had been moved from temporary holding camps to resettlement villages in the first half of January.
"There are about 400 houses built for the Hmong, and they have already moved in," he said.
The United States and human rights groups have said the Hmong could be in danger when returned to the country where they fought, unsuccessfully, to keep Laos from falling into communist hands in the 1970s.
Many Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos' rugged mountains, fought under CIA advisers during Vietnam to back a pro-American government _ Washington's so-called "secret war" _ before the communist victory in 1975.
The Thai government claimed most of the Hmong were economic migrants who entered the country illegally and had no claims to refugee status.
On Tuesday, a coalition of 19 human rights and humanitarian groups including Amnesty International issued a joint open letter to the Lao President Choummaly Sayasone, expressing "serious concerns for the safety and protection of the 4,689 Lao Hmong" who were forcibly returned by Thailand on Dec. 28, 2009.
The letter urged that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and other humanitarian organizations be allowed "unhindered and continuous access" to the returnees to ensure that their treatment is in accordance with international standards.
"The U.N. can visit the Hmong if they want," said Khenthong, who acknowledged receiving a letter from the High Commissioner's office asking for access. He added, however, that the roads to the villages were difficult to travel, and a new better road would be finished around April.
"I think they have to wait for that," he said.
The rights groups' open letter also called for Laos to allow immediate resettlement to third countries of 158 returned Hmong whom the UNHCR had designated "persons of concern" with a well-founded fear of persecution if returned to Laos. They have been offered resettlement in third countries.
However, Khenthong said the 158 had now changed their minds and no longer wished to move to a third country.
"In interviews, they said they thought that the Lao government would arrest and execute them when they came back here, but when they saw how the Lao government welcomed them back to the country and prepared places for them to live, they decided to stay," he said. "They don't want to go to a third country anymore."