WASHINGTON—U.S.-based Lao Hmong refugees have voiced deep concern after Thailand forced thousands of Hmong asylum-seekers back to Laos, where rights groups and international observers fear they may face harsh treatment.
“We are still in shock,” Song Vang, a Lao Hmong woman living in St. Paul, Minnesota, said in an interview.
“We worry about them, and we don’t know what will happen to them in the future. We can only pray for them and hope that the Lao government will love them like other Lao people.”
At the end of December, Thai military units equipped with riot shields and batons entered a refugee camp at Huay Nam Khao and forced thousands of Hmong onto buses, sending them back across the Mekong River into Laos.
A smaller group of 158 at a camp in Nong Khai was also deported, even after U.N. refugee officials identified them as “persons of concern” who could be subject to persecution if sent back.
Song Vang said she had relatives—some close, some distant—in both camps.
“We thought that the Lao and Thai governments would allow [the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees] to interview each family,” she said. “We were waiting for the outcome, but heard this shocking news instead.”
“All we can do now is talk to each other, comfort each other. Everyone is in so much pain. We don’t know what to think. We didn’t believe this would happen.”
Chu Pheng Lee, a Minnesota-based community leader and chairman of the Hmong Diaspora Leadership Council in the USA, called on Laos to allow Hmong exile groups to “visit those who were returned and make sure that they are safe.”
Speaking to a reporter following a meeting attended by 400 Lao Hmong in St. Paul on Jan. 5, Lee said that he has already received phone calls from some of the deported Hmong.
“They said that at the moment the Lao government is taking care of them,” he said. “But they don’t know what is going to happen next, what is going to happen to them.”
“They have no confidence that they will be o.k.”
Fears of persecution
The forced repatriations ended years of uncertainty over the status of the Hmong.
Known as America’s “forgotten allies,” the Hmong sided with the United States during the Vietnam War and many fled Laos in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took power. Tens of thousands have since been resettled in the United States.
Many Hmong say they will face persecution from the Lao government because of their Vietnam War-era ties with the United States.
Some Hmong fought under CIA advisers during a so-called “secret war” against communists in Laos.
Thailand has insisted the Hmong aren’t genuine refugees but illegal migrants.
The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) has repeatedly expressed concern about the fate of the asylum-seekers, noting they have been denied access to the agency to determine their reasons for fleeing.
The U.S. State Department said in a statement that Thailand’s decision to return the Hmong to Laos is a “serious violation” of international humanitarian principles and urged Thai authorities to suspend the operation.
On Dec. 29, the UNHCR said it had asked Laos to grant it access to the more than 4,000 Hmong who were repatriated and urged the Thai government to detail assurances it had received from the Laos communist government on future treatment of the Hmong.
A Lao government spokesman said on Monday the concerns were groundless and the Hmong being repatriated were illegal migrants who would be housed in resettlement villages.
Original reporting by Max Avary, Phoxaysavath Ratanavong, and Chareusouk for RFA's Lao service. Translated from the Lao by Kayasith Soulisak. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Written in English by Richard Finney and edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.