October 17, 2008
Hmong: Dire Conditions of Detention Centers
The violation of basic human rights of Hmong refugees in Thailand is cause for grave concern.
Below is an article published by OhMyNews:Worn fabrics and remnants of personal belongings hang from the ceiling bars, impeding the flow of sunshine through tiny windows. The mixed, stagnating stench of food, urine, human waste, and unwashed bodies permeates the air of the cramped living space where people have to eat, toilet, and sleep. Small and fragile silhouettes peer through the light wondering what lies beyond the bars, guards, and locks.
For hundreds, this is childhood. Instead of waking in a bed of their own, the children wake stiff and sore from a rough, blanketless night's sleep. Instead of finding breakfast set in morning, the children suffer headaches and hunger pangs from the emptiness that pummels at their insides. And instead of discovering imaginative solace in the great outdoors, the children find their playtime limited to just a few hours a day by stone-faced guards.
In the beginning, detention presented an escape from the threat of bullets. However, as the years pass and detainment comes to resemble normalcy, the once glossy eyes of children become hazy with the crestfallen grayness of premature adulthood.
Their crime? They are Hmong.
The Hmong hill tribe was recruited in 1961 by the United States to combat Vietcong forces during the Vietnam War. Following US withdrawal from the region, communist forces seized control of Laos and have been systematically persecuting thousands of Hmong ever since. Several Hmong have managed to escape Laos and resettle in foreign countries as refugees.
Those Hmong who moved to Thailand, however, have yet to find the asylum they were seeking. As recently as July 2008, the Thai government forcibly sent 800 Hmong from the Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun to Laos following Hmong protests over a bilateral agreement between Thai and Lao governments concerning repatriation. In November 2007, 160 Hmong were arrested and detained in the Nong Khai Immigration and Detention Center after they attempted to escape the Huay Nam Khao encampment. Currently there are 155 Hmong people at Nong Khai after five escaped last year. 90 are imprisoned children, 11 of whom are babies that were born within the past two years.
The living conditions of the Nong Khai detention center are dire. The 155 Hmong, all of whom have been declared "persons of concern" by the United Nations High Commissioner of Refugees (UNHCR), are housed in two 9 meter by 9 meter rooms, one for males and the other for females.
The same rooms are used for sleeping, eating, and toileting; as is such the living conditions are overcrowded and unsanitary. The Hmong are locked inside the detention center for most of the day with up to four hours allotted to outdoor exercise, depending on the generosity of the guards.
Under the watchful eye of the international community, Thailand has undergone intense scrutiny for the treatment of its refugees. The US Committee for Refugees and Immigrants (USCRI), for example, issued a report listing Thailand as one of the ten worst places in the world for refugees. The listing reflects the living conditions of Thai encampments as well as egregious violations of internationally-accepted human rights principles such as non-refoulement, a central tenet of international customary law that states that no refugee should be forcibly returned to his or her country of origin if he or she will encounter any form of persecution or discrimination in that county.
According to Hmong National Development, the Hmong who have been forced back to Laos "have been sent to harsh and isolated political reeducation camps in Laos where they are being persecuted and suffer." One writer has described the new village in Laos, to which the 1228 Hmong of Huay Nam Khao have been sent, as "Potemkin-like" with no allowance for visitations by international organizations. Despite Hmong testimonies, reports from Medicines Sans Frontieres, and physical evidence of torture and armed violence, the Laos government still denies committing acts of persecution or discrimination against the Hmong.
In June 2008 the United States passed House Resolution 1273 which expressed concern for the persecuted Hmong in both Thailand and Laos. It urged Laos to end the ongoing humanitarian tragedy within its borders as well as allowing unfettered, international access to the Hmong in both Laos and Thailand, among other recommendations. The bill is evidence that the US government is aware of the ongoing atrocities but has stopped short of rallying a peacemaking mission to assist the Hmong.
Obligations to International Human Rights Treaties
As a host to over 400,000 refugees and asylum seekers, Thailand has a responsibility to protect those seeking safety within its borders. Despite Thailand's not being party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, international organizations and human rights lawyers still feel that the Thai government has a duty to cooperate with international refugee law, particularly the principle of non-refoulement.
The Thai government has argued that the Hmong entered Thailand illegally and are therefore not welcome. In 2007 Laos and Thailand signed a border agreement in which they decided to jointly manage and collaborate on the Hmong issue. Also in 2007, Thailand requested the UN to stop Refugee Status Determination (RSD), which the UN did pending further review. Thus, Thailand is allowed to label the Hmong as "illegal migrants," an argument the Thai government uses to justify forcible repatriation.
Thailand also claims that it feels economically strapped by the refugee influx. This, however, is questionable, considering Forbes Magazine has listed King Bhumibol Adulyadej, the world's longest reigning monarch who is revered as both a humanitarian and deity in Thailand, as one of the top five wealthiest kings with a net worth of over $5 billion.
While Thailand has not committed to international refugee law, it is legally bound to respect the human rights of children. In 1992 the state ratified and entered into force the Convention on the Rights of the Child (CRC) as well as its two optional protocols in 2006. Consequently, international law mandates that Thailand honor the rights of Hmong children as articulated by the CRC, a commitment that, regrettably, the Thai government has deliberately ignored. The result has been widespread denial of the most fundamental of rights to more than one thousand Hmong children.
According to Article 2 of the CRC, state parties must respect and ensure the rights set forth in the CRC to all children within their jurisdiction irrespective of race, skin color, sex, language, religion, political or other opinion, national, ethnic or social origin, property, disability, birth or other status. As is such, Thailand must take appropriate measures to ensure that Hmong children are protected against all forms of discrimination or punishment on the basis of their ethnic and national status.
Additionally, the CRC binds Thailand to the following: ensuring that children are not separated from parents against their will unless deemed necessary by competent authorities (Article 9), providing children with proper nourishment so as to prevent disease and malnourishment (Article 24c), providing free and compulsory primary education to all children (Article 28a), not depriving children of their liberty unlawfully or arbitrarily (Article 37b), only detaining children as a measure of last resort (Article 37b), and providing prompt legal access or assistance to detained children as well as the right to challenge the legality of detention before a judicial body (Article 37d).
Undeniably, the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Center comprises an incredible violation of the rights of Hmong children who have been subjected to some of the same punishments as the adults and, in some cases, separated from parents. Primarily, the Thai government has systematically detained 90 Hmong children unlawfully and arbitrarily, a policy that is by no means one of last resort. Nong Khai lacks a school or educational resources, which signifies an unjustifiable loss of two formative years of education for the children growing up in the detention center. Furthermore, the children have no legal means or access to advocates to help them challenge their detention status before a judicial body.
According to human rights activist Ann Peters, who spent time with the people in Nong Khai in 2007, the Hmong were not receiving adequate food. During her visit, a church group she met with agreed to bring milk temporarily for the children. Another more recent report by Radion confirms the lack of adequate nutrition. CARE Raks Thai, a leading humanitarian organization that fights global poverty, evaluated the interred people of Nong Khai and concluded that they were malnourished. Long-term effects of malnutrition in children include stunted growth and abnormal decreases in brain development.
The Hmong Action Network (HAN), a group of international human rights activists with its base in Seoul, South Korea, has been working for several months to bring heightened attention to the plight of the Hmong. Through their interactive blog, articles published in various regional and citizens' journals, and contacts with activists in Thailand, Laos and abroad, HAN has made a committed effort to sustaining informed dialogue on the fragile humanitarian situation.
Unlike her fellow HAN members, Ann Peters has observed first-hand the cramped, repressive conditions under which the Hmong are living. "They were at the mercy and whim of the government and the guards. When I was working with them, for example, we found out the guards had withheld food from all of them (including the children) for three days as punishment after they refused to be forcibly repatriated. Another time, their blankets were taken away and access to clean drinking water denied last winter for refusal to cooperate. Thailand has also allowed the Lao military to visit and photograph these people who are incarcerated and kept as prisoners."
According to Dr. Gilles Isard, Medicines sans Frontieres, Hmong adults have been found to display psychological disorders and high levels of distress, including "pathological mourning due to the death or disappearance of multiple family members, psycho-traumatic disorders due to exposure to numerous highly traumatic situations (being forced to hide, flee under dangerous conditions, live under constant threat of attack and sexual violence), anxiety disorders due to the uncertainty of their future, and the inability to control their present living conditions." The Hmong also display symptoms of post-traumatic stress disorder, which include persistent sadness, sleeping disorders, anxiety, crying easily, recurrent nightmares, feelings of hopelessness, difficulty concentrating, headaches, and other chronic pains.
HAN is particularly concerned with how childhoods marked by instability, violence, and now incarceration have affected the development and psychological well-being of Hmong children. Given Thailand's numerous violations against CRC rights in Nong Khai, UNHCR not providing food and their prohibition from accessing the people at Huay Nam Khao, and the excessive duration of childhood internment, the short and long-term health effects on the children are likely to be severe.
HAN is currently developing an advocacy campaign that it will present before government officials from five countries that previously agreed in 2007 and 2008 to serve as third party hosts for Hmong refugees: Australia, Canada, France, the Netherlands, and United States. HAN will call on the respective governments to accept the refugees and encourage Thailand to present the Hmong with a viable alternative to remaining in Thailand or being forcibly repatriated to Laos. Outside of Nong Khai, HAN also seeks resettlement of the 6,100 Hmong living in Huay Nam Khao, 1,450 of whom are children under the age of five.
"We must do this publically and forcefully enough to make sure this is the only option that Thailand has," said HAN activist Tom Rainey-Smith. "The world is watching Thailand and is familiar with the ongoing human rights abuses. The five countries must come forward, citing these abuses and reconfirming that they will accept refugees who have already been screened at once."
The systematized imprisonment of children and their denial of food, proper shelter, and education are practices that extend beyond the realm of blatant illegality. The actions are cruel violations of the rights intrinsic to all children. They are also ones that merit immediate recognition from world leaders and a commitment from the Thai government that has remained elusive and unfulfilled for far too long.