March 2, 2010

Hmong: Uncertainty Awaits Repatriates in Laos

Sample ImageLao's Government to spend 8 Million Dollars for infrastructure and schools. It is Appealing for foreign support to carry on the task and improve conditions for the Hmong Returnees. Will their future look brighter once they get settled?

Below is an article published by The Bangkok Post:

Hmong people repatriated from Thailand to start a new life at a resettlement village in Laos are unsure whether their lives hold out the prospect of much improvement.

Ban Thonekhan village, 150km east of the capital Vientiane, is in the country's mountainous centre. It is home to 2,768 Hmong repatriated from Ban Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun on Dec 28 [2009] last year, and 155 Hmong from Nong Khai who had persons of concern status.

They were among 4,350 Hmong sent from the Thai camp over international objections.

More than 500 Lao people live in the village already, but the Lao government is hurriedly redeveloping the area to settle the new arrivals. It has built 400 of the 600 houses that will be needed, with the rest due to be completed next month.

The Thai government which regarded them as illegal economic migrants insisted they left voluntarily. However, it kept the media at a distance as soldiers, armed with riot shields and batons, shepherded the asylum-seekers into buses and trucks for the journey back across the border last year.

Among the Hmong are 155 who were held at a detention centre in Nong Khai, and have ''persons of concern'' status. Some had been promised resettlement in third countries including the United States, which says it will accept 70 from this group.

The Lao government invited the Thai delegation, including journalists, to visit the resettlement village last week. It wants to allay reports that the Hmong had left Thailand under duress or were mistreated. Nipat Thonglek, head of the Royal Armed Forces' Department of Bor der Affairs, led the delegation.

It was the first official Thai visit to the village since the repatriated Hmong left the camps. The Hmong people who met them at the village sang a native song of welcome. The lyrics confessed their guilt at having left the motherland, and asserting their happiness at having returned. However, the optimistic message of the song was at odds with how many of the Hmong really feel.

Va Kia, 50, originally from Xaisomboon, was detained at Nong Khai immigration centre until Feb 28 last year.

The United Nations gave her a card attesting to her ''person of concern'' status, which she believes gave her entitlement to resettle in the US.

However, no one has followed up on the promise, so she faces the prospect of spending life at the village instead.

''They said that after 30 days back in Laos, they would take us on to the third countries. But it's been nearly two months now, and nobody has come.''

The isolated village is on former forestry land. The Lao government won't say how much it has spent on resettling the Hmong so far, but says a total of US$8 million (264.3 million baht) will be needed to build schools and put up basic infrastructure. It is appealing for foreign support.

A Hmong man, 32, also given person of concern status, said he, too, faces an uncertain future. He left a jungle home near the Vietnamese border in Borikhamxay province several years ago with five other family members.

''Because we do not have Lao citizenship, somebody said we should go to Thailand. I paid him the equivalent of nearly 6,000 baht.

''We were afraid to stay in the jungle, so we crossed the border. We heard during our stay in Bangkok that the UN would protect us, so we contacted them. Our family is being resettled in the Netherlands, but at the moment we do not know what lies ahead.'' Hmong woman Pai Seya, 40, said she was not happy. ''While in Thailand I could speak my feelings, but here I cannot,'' said Pai, from the Ban Huay Nam Khao camp.

Earlier in Vientiane, Jo Luo, 20, refused to comment on claims that she had been raped by Lao soldiers. ''I don't want to further talk about this, especially before TV cameras and a huge crowd.''

She was among four people from Nong Khai detention centre to which the US has paid special concern. The other three were siblings, aged between seven and nine years. The family of a Lao reporter has now adopted two girls, and a boy has been returned to his Hmong father.

Jo Luo said she left home alone hoping for a better life in Thailand, but ended up cleaning dishes at a Bangkok restaurant. She was rounded up, and eventually sent to Nong Khai.

Lt Gen Nipat said Thailand had repatriated 7,780 Hmong in 22 trips since November 2006.

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