Monday, August 23, 2010
So near, yet so far. Photo: Ben Doherty
An asylum seeker granted refugee status by Australia is being kept in limbo by both Laos and Thailand.
TOUA Vang Cheng (not his real name) has spent a lifetime fleeing persecution.
A Hmong tribesman from Laos, he lives every day like those before it, trapped in no-man’s land. He had believed his decades of uncertainty – of being arrested, jailed, and tortured, of paying smugglers to spirit him across borders – were over when he was granted a humanitarian visa to resettle in Australia in 2007. But since then he has languished in refugee camps, unable to move to Australia because neither Thailand nor Laos will grant him an exit visa.
Last December, to international outrage, Mr Cheng and another 150-odd UN-recognised refugees, as well as 4500 asylum seekers, were forcibly deported from Thailand by the Thai army, back into detention camps in Laos.
Australia was furious, saying it was working to resettle 47 of the deported group, and that Mr Cheng and 16 others had already been granted humanitarian visas to live in Australia.
But now, after months in a detention centre in a remote, mountainous, part of Laos, Mr Cheng has again escaped and is back in hiding, in an undisclosed location in central Thailand.
He has, in his words, “no future”. He cannot work in Thailand, and is fearful of leaving the tiny single-room apartment he shares with half a dozen others in daylight, for fear of being caught.
“There is no way out for me,” he told The Age, on condition his identity not be revealed. “Every day it is the same, I am afraid. If they catch me, they send me back. I cannot live in Laos. They will kill me.
“I am a human, too. I would like to live. I would be a good citizen.”
It is understood about 14 Hmong families, comprising more than 70 people, have fled Lao detention camps in recent months, most back into Thailand.
Several families hold visas to move to Australia, while others have permits to resettle in the US, Canada and the Netherlands.
The Hmong, historically a hill tribe from southern China, are an ethnic minority in Laos. They have been persecuted by the communist government there for decades, and Mr Cheng’s story mirrors that of thousands of Hmong.
His began during the Vietnam War, when his father, along with thousands of Hmong men, were trained as a secret army by the CIA, to fight alongside American troops against communist North Vietnam.
But after the war, when the communist Pathet Lao party came to power in Laos, Hmong were systematically driven from their land, had homes burned, and were attacked, raped and killed.
Mr Cheng is in his late 40s, or early 50s – he isn’t certain. He has spent almost all of his life on the run. He fled to China, but was captured, beaten and jailed, including being shackled in leg-irons for two years. He escaped and fled into Thailand.
In 2003, he gained access to the UN’s refugee agency for the first time, and was assessed as having a genuine fear of persecution and a legitimate claim to asylum.
In 2007, in a refugee camp in Nong Khai on Thailand’s border with Laos, he was interviewed by Australian immigration officials and offered resettlement as a refugee.
“I thought all my problems were solved. Finally I can be freely somewhere. I felt like I had a future. I felt I would be safe.
But Thailand refused to give him the exit permit to leave for Australia.
Plane tickets were booked, and abandoned, as pressure from Laos – anxious not to be seen internationally as a country riven with ethnic tensions – meant Thailand wouldn’t let him leave.
Then, in December last year, he was part of the group of asylum seekers deported in army trucks by soldiers.
The Thai army forcibly evicted the Hmong in secret, sealing off a 12-square-kilometre area around the camp, and scrambling mobile phone signals to the area.
Their actions drew international condemnation, including from Australia, which described the action as a breach of international obligations not to send refugees back to where they faced harm.
The Thai and Lao governments declined to comment. But Thai government spokesman Panitan Wattanayagorn has said previously that Thailand regards all Hmong asylum seekers as illegal immigrants and that, if found, they would be sent back to Laos, regardless of UN or third country documentation.