Friday, April 2, 2010
Australia's ambassador to Laos has been allowed to visit briefly the Hmong refugees formerly destined for Australia before they were forced into a refugee camp in the remote interior of the country.
But ambassador Michele Forster was given only limited access to the Hmong under strict military supervision on Friday last week and the refugees appear no closer to being allowed to leave the country they have already fled once.
''We are disappointed that access to returnees … was limited,'' a Department of Foreign Affairs spokeswoman told The Age.
''We reiterate the government's deep concern and disappointment at the forced repatriation of Laos Hmong [and] are concerned for the welfare of the broader group.''
Historically a hill tribe, the Hmong have faced generations of persecution - including detention in ''re-education'' camps, land dispossession and execution - in communist Laos since members of their ethnic minority fought alongside US troops in the Vietnam War.
In December, the Thai army forcibly removed more than 4500 Hmong asylum seekers who had fled across the border into Thai refugee camps and sent them back to Laos.
Only 158 of those had been allowed to see the UN's human rights agency while in Thailand. All were found to be genuine refugees.
Australia was working to resettle 47 of that group; 17 had already been granted humanitarian visas to live in Australia.
''We remain committed to resettling this group. We urge the government of Laos to allow independent international access to the returned Hmong, and the resettlement of those with valid visas who still wish to leave Laos,'' the spokeswoman said.
After promising to grant unfettered access within 30 days to resettling countries such as Australia and to the UN, the Laos government reneged and Friday's brief visit was the first contact Australia has been allowed. Ms Forster's visit was as part of a group of diplomats, UN officials and selected media taken to the camp for about two hours by Lao authorities. The group was closely guarded and not allowed to speak privately with the refugees.
The Lao government says the refugees, having been returned to Laos, now do not want to be resettled elsewhere.
''All the returnees are calm and stable and satisfied that they have returned to live in their home country again,'' the Laotian army's deputy chief, Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphan, told the visiting group.
But even as he spoke, a middle-aged woman whispered to the diplomats, ''I want to go to another country, I don't feel good here in the village.''
Human rights groups say the asylum seekers have been pressured to sign forms that say they are happy to live in Laos.
Brittis Edman of Amnesty International said: ''We received several credible reports that they had to sign printed documents saying that they didn't want to leave, and that at least some of them felt forced to sign.''
The refugees are being kept, under military guard, at a camp at Phonekham in central Laos. The camp is in an isolated, mountainous area and the single road to it is almost impassable (the visiting group was flown in by helicopter).
There are allegations the Hmong are not being properly cared for.
Phil Robertson of Human Rights Watch said: ''We have received reports of people getting rice, but very little else, in terms of food and that medical care is completely inadequate.''