At a press conference last week [April 2009], Thai Foreign Minsiter Kasit Piromya Kasi made the announcement that 158 Hmong Lao refugees will finally be allowed to resettle in other countries.
This followed a meeting with US Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. The refugees being allowed to resettle have spent more than two years in over-crowded prison cells in Thailand’s Immigration Detention Center (IDD) at Nong Khai, despite international intervention, the outrage of human rights groups, and offers from Australia, Canada, New Zealand and the United States to resettle them.
The refugees have United Nations documentation confirming that they are indeed political refugees – something the 5,000 other refugees, currently residing in camps in Thailand, do not have.
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees has been unable to provide such documentation because Thailand never ratified the UN Refugee Convention and has not allowed the UN agency to interview them to document their refugee status.
According to Thailand’s Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya Kasit, those 5,000 Hmong asylum seekers, who are currently living in Petchabun’s Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp, do not qualify because they are “economic” refugees.
For that reason, Laos and Thailand have agreed that they should be repatriated by the end of the year . But he assures the international community that the two governments intend to conduct the repatriation programme with transparency, to ensure that the Hmong will be able to return to their homeland with decent living conditions. He also says the international community will be allowed to monitor the returnees.
Rebecca Sommer of the NGO Society for Threatened Peoples disagrees. “That is a serious outrage. Laos is a communist country with a very bad human rights record. It is extremely unlikely that Laos will ever allow international human rights organizations or journalists free, unhindered access to the returnees. That Thailand continues to claim these refugees fled Laos for economic reasons is not true, it can be proven not to be true. Most of them fled from persecution in Laos, to seek safety. And we don't believe that they are safe once returned to Laos.”
Sommer urges anyone interested in the subject to watch her eight minute video about one group of children who, when forced back to Laos, escaped and fled once again to Thailand. “These young refugee girls are damaged for life. What they endured is terrible. Their testimonies, the testimonies of obviously traumatized children, should sound alarm bells regarding how other returnees could be treated once back in Laos.”
Sommer, who is also the filmmaker of award-winning documentary “Hunted Like Animals,” pointed out that the children’s faces were disguised in the film to protect them, as they are still hiding in Thailand.
According to both Sommer and Kue Xiong, president of the Hmong Lao Human Rights Council, Lao officials are allowed to go in and out of Thailand's Hmong refugee camp at will and have constant access to the refugees.
After showing them films purporting to represent how good life can be in Laos for returning refugees, they also use cash bribes to urge the refugees to return home. In addition, thousands of refugees have already been forcefully repatriated by Thailand, which claims that the refugees wanted to return to Laos.
Mr. Kue insists this is not true, it is simply propaganda. “The information put out by Laos and Thailand does not match firsthand reports we receive from the refugees themselves, which are very different. Lao and Thai officials attempt to intimidate the refugees, telling them that they must agree to go back freely, or if they will not, they will be sent back to Laos forcibly and will then face very severe consequences.”
That is not free consent, says Mr. Kue, that is forced consent. And he regrets that nobody helps, not James Anaya, the new United Nations Special Rapporteur for Indigenous Peoples, or any other UN entity. He added that of the many Hmong refugees that have indeed been forced to return, many have disappeared, including traditional Hmong leaders.
Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya Kasit has also promised that, once the refugees have been returned to Laos, they will be given an opportunity to ask the Lao government for permission to resettle in other countries.
Once again, Sommer disagrees. “Lies, lies and again lies! How can a representative of the Thai Government confirm such approval on behalf of another State? He knows very well that once the refuges have been returned they will not be allowed to leave Laos. Why can’t the refugees be resettled while they are still asylum seekers in Thailand?”
Adding to the confusion is the new REDD programme, currently proposed by the United Nations and the World Bank to fight climate change. The plan designates forests as carbon sinks, and establishes credits to be traded on an international carbon market.
But Laos has been forcibly resettling Hmong and other indigenous peoples from their traditional highland forests, where they have lived sustainably for centuries. The new REDD program, by introducing forests and carbon credits to a market, will provide additional cover for the Government to evict the Hmong, as well as any other indigenous peoples, from their traditional homelands, while millions of dollars will flow into government coffers.
“We fear not only for the refugees who will be returned, but are also afraid that thousands of our Hmong people in hiding will soon have no more forests in which to hide from the military who are already hunting them. As they are surrounded, they cannot escape to neighboring countries, as many refugees in Noing Khai were able to do some years ago,” said Zong L. Vang, of the Hmong Lao refugee community in La Crosse, WI in the United States.
“This is one of the reasons why we oppose the REDD programme as it is currently being debated, because our people and other indigenous peoples in Laos, as well as in Vietnam, will have no say about the implementation," he added. "In Laos, our people are already being hunted by the Government; they are already being massacred in the forests. As Laos prepares to participate in the REDD programme, those Hmong people who have until now lived outside the military zones will also be forced to leave their traditional lands.”