June 17, 2008

Hmong: The World’s Forgotten Refugees

Sample ImageHmong asylum-seekers in northern Thailand are desperate to be processed for refugee status, but as Thai authorities will not allow the UNHCR into their camps, the Hmong fear being deported to communist Laos where they may face persecution.

Below is an article published by Suab Hmong Radio :

Chief Yong Tong Veng, head of the Hmong people at Petchabun camp, is desperate. 'We are hiding in this camp and no-one has come to help, the food is not enough. Do not send us back to Laos. Do not send us back to Laos. Please ask UNHCR [United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees] to help us. The Lao government shoots with big bullets in the jungle and children die. Do not send us back to Laos ...'

Some 8000 Hmong people live in this camp, 350 kilometres north of Bangkok, towards the Lao border. They are surrounded by barbed wire and under military guard. They have insufficient food, no schooling and limited ability to access Thai hospitals. Epidemics are a constant threat. They must wear identity cards marked 'in Thailand illegally'. They could be pitched back into Laos and the terrors it holds for them at any time.

Many of them fled from their villages in communist Laos, where they still fear persecution because their families sided with the USA in the Vietnam war.

If not for Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the only aid agency at the camp, conditions would be much worse, says Nolwenn Conan, MSF field coordinator at Petchabun. 'If MSF was not here, there would be health scares, and problems with water, sanitation and food. The Thai government will not treat them at a hospital without us. We don't have enough money for food, charcoal and other things.'

The camp started in 2004 as a roadside tent village, but in mid-2007 the Thai military built a more permanent camp, where Colonel Tanu, Thai camp commander, says, 'It is easier to control things. Here they are more secure.'

Conditions may not be ideal, but at least the Hmong at Petchabun are 'secure'. But only just. And only for the moment.

Walk around the camp and inmates thrust sheets of paper at you, with stories and photos and pleas to UNHCR or the Australian government for help. Their fear and desperation are palpable, as they talk of disappearances, jungle fighting and cruelties in Laos. Many say they would rather die than be sent back to Laos.

Overwhelmingly, they want to resettle in a third country, and the United States and Australia top the list. Chief Yong Tong Veng is quite clear: 'We want to go to a new country. We want a place to live.'

The Thai government is not a party to the 1951 United Nations Convention on the Status of Refugees and views the Hmong as illegal immigrants, not refugees. The Thais insist there is no role for UNHCR and that the Hmong will sooner or later be deported.

It is likely that not all […] meet the UN criteria for refugee status, but as no internationally-recognised assessment has been done, it is hard to know.

According to spokesperson Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR wants to help. 'The Thai government has now completed what they call a screening and we can't really comment because we haven't seen the questions and don't know what the procedure's like. But our position all along is that it should live up to international standards.'

Most commentators have little faith in the Thai process. And so the Petchabun Hmong are in limbo. No third country is likely to take them in as refugees without verified screening.

Thailand is already deporting Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos, including 163 people in June 2007.

Twelve Petchabun Hmong returned to Laos at the end of February this year [2008], 'voluntarily' according to the Thai government. Says McKinsey: 'We initially relied on assurances from the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs that the only people sent back to Laos were people who asked to go back. However, we soon began receiving reports that call into question whether everyone actually volunteered to go back, and that concerns us.'

The Lao government […] insists that returnees won't be harmed. The Hmong don't believe this assurance and UNHCR, Human Rights Watch and other international agencies are also concerned.

Australia is keeping very quiet. Too quiet maybe. It has taken Hmong refugees in the past — the 2006 census shows 2189 Hmong living in Australia, and there are well-established community groups. But try to ask the ambassador in Thailand or the Department of Immigration and Citizenship (DIAC) why Australia isn't doing more now, and you don't get very far.

A DIAC spokesperson did confirm recently that the Australian government is aware of the issues and that 'a number' of permanent refugee visas have been granted to Hmong people in Thailand, though not in Petchabun. According to DIAC, they cannot get them out of Thailand as the Thai government won't grant 'exit permission'.

In a world faced with refugee crises on the scale of Dafur or Somalia, it is easy to overlook other asylum seeker populations altogether. And the Hmong are not being blown up, or sold into slavery, or dying of disease, or starving to death, at least not in Petchabun.

But they are locked up in limbo by the very people who hold their hopes in their hands. Chief Yong Tong Veng and his people are despairing. Their future looks bleak.

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