BANGKOK—The only aid group assisting members of a Lao ethnic group living in a Thai refugee camp says it will leave the camp because of policies that severely curtail aid workers’ ability to perform their jobs.
Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), also known as Doctors Without Borders, has provided medical care, food, sanitation, and clean water to residents of the Huay Nam Khao camp in northern Thailand’s Phetchabun province since July 2005.
MSF Thailand director Gilles Isard said his team would cease operations in the camp because military personnel there were continuing to forcibly repatriate to Laos members of the Hmong ethnic group and preventing MSF from providing care for camp residents.
“They [the military] asked MSF to reconsider, and we made clear that we would be willing to reconsider if there was a major change in policy in terms of transparency,” Isard said.
But he said that authorities ignored repeated requests to loosen restrictions and end pressure on the Hmong to return to Laos, prompting MSF's decision to withdraw.
“MSF took the difficult decision to stop its humanitarian assistance activities for the Hmong displaced camp at Phetchabun,” Isard told a news conference here.
MSF is working with UNICEF to hand over responsibilities of caring for the camp’s nearly 5,000 residents to another NGO.
Pressure to return
Isard said Thai officials view the Hmong as illegal immigrants rather than refugees fleeing persecution.
Many Hmong fought as U.S.-backed guerrillas against the Communists during the Vietnam War and claim they face retribution from the ruling Communist party in Laos if they return.
“The population of this camp came to us and fled Laos because of the persecution they endured from the Lao army,” Isard said.
“There are people in the camp who bear physical scars, such as bullets and shrapnel wounds, from alleged abuse in Laos,” he said.
He also noted “serious psychological disorders” among refugees, including “a high level of psychological distress.”
Nonetheless, he said, Huay Nam Khao operates under “tight military control” as part of an effort to pressure the Hmong to return home. "The place resembles more a detention center than an actual refugee camp."
He added that the military also curtailed his agency’s activities as a way to gain leverage over the Hmong.
"The military has requested the assistance of MSF to convince the Hmong to return to Laos," Isard said. "On several occasions they have asked MSF not to distribute food to the refugees in order to add extra pressure on the population."
Plea to governments
In a statement, MSF denounced Thai authorities’ restrictions on access to aid services and use of military checks on the Hmong population and MSF staff members.
“We can no longer work in a camp where the military uses arbitrary imprisonment of influential leaders to pressure refugees into a 'voluntary' return to Laos, and forces our patients to pass through military checkpoints to access our medical clinic,” Isard said.
MSF also called on the Thai and Lao governments to stop forced repatriation of Hmong refugees in Huay Nam Khao and to allow an independent third-party review of residents’ refugee status determinations.
Thailand and Laos have agreed to repatriate all residents of Huay Nam Khao by the end of the year. Some 2000 Hmong have been repatriated monthly since December 2008.
Laos previously denied they were Laotian, describing them as Thailand's problem.
Thai foreign minister Kasit Piromya originally promised in March that a separate group of 158 Hmong asylum-seekers who have U.N.-certified refugee status would be allowed to leave for third countries willing to accept them.
The foreign minister retracted his statement in May and said the 158 Hmong must be sent back to Laos, apply for Lao passports, and submit applications to the government to resettle in those third countries.
They are currently being held at an immigration detention center in Nong Khai province, northeast of Bangkok, where they have been since late 2006.
In May 2005, a major refugee camp for ethnic Hmong at Wat Tham Krabok in central Thailand was closed after about 15,000 residents were relocated to the United States.
Original reporting by RFA's Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English for the Web by Joshua Lipes. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.