Monday, April 5, 2010
BANGKOK: Australia's ambassador to Laos has been allowed to briefly visit the Hmong refugees formerly destined for Australia before they were forced into a refugee camp in the remote interior of the country.
But Michele Forster was only given limited access to the Hmong under strict military supervision late last month.
The refugees appear no closer to being allowed to leave the country they have already fled once.
''We are disappointed access to returnees … was limited,'' a spokeswoman for the Department of Foreign Affairs said.
''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 in Laos - including detention in ''re-education'' camps, land dispossession and execution - since members of their ethnic minority fought alongside American 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, sending them back to Laos.
Only 158 of those had been allowed to see the United Nation's human rights agency while in Thailand. All were found to be genuine refugees with legitimate fears of persecution in Laos. Australia was working to resettle 47 of them and 17 had been granted humanitarian Australian visas.
''We remain committed to resettling this group,'' the foreign affairs spokeswoman said. ''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.''
But the Lao government says the refugees, having been returned to Laos, 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 Laos army's deputy chief, Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphan, said.
But, even as he was speaking, a Lao 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.
''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,'' said Brittis Edman of Amnesty International.