NONGKHAI, Thailand—Former top Lao government officials have made a personal appeal to a group of minority Hmong asylum-seekers detained in Thailand's northeast Nongkhai province to return to Laos.
But Hmong sources say the effort fell flat.
“We would rather stay here—even with these living conditions. We would rather stay here and die in the detention center,” one Hmong source said, referring to the Nongkhai Immigration Detention Center.
“The word from the government is for us to go back. That’s what they say. 'Once you go back, you can live anywhere you want.' But we don’t believe them. We won’t go back to Laos."
We don’t believe them."
Thailand says the Hmong in Nongkhai are economic migrants and illegal immigrants, and has threatened to begin forced repatriations if the Nongkhai Hmong refuse to go home of their own free will by June 1.
But overseas rights groups say the vast majority of the Hmong detained in Nongkhai are political refugees who fear persecution or worse if returned to Laos.
Pressure on Obama
Last month, members of the U.S. Congress wrote a letter to Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, calling on her to "pressure the Thai government to allow the
United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) access to the
detainees in order to determine their refugee status".
Unbiased screening by the UNHCR was "an important and long overdue step that must be taken immediately," the letter said.
A group of 196 Hmong was forcibly repatriated to Laos by Thailand on Feb. 1, meeting with no protest from the U.S. government, it added.
During his presidential campaign, Barack Obama stopped short of mentioning the possibility of resettlement in the United States, saying only that international law should be upheld, and that displaced Hmong should not be placed in
Resettlement 'not an option'
The Lao delegation to the Hmong refugees in Thailand included the chairman of the Lao-Thai border sub-committee and a former foreign ministry spokesman, who spent two hours with representatives of the 158 still being held in Nongkhai.
Border sub-committee chairman Maj. Gen. Bouasieng Champaphanh and former Lao foreign ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy also brought along four residents of Phalak village—one of the areas earmarked by the government for repatriated asylum-seekers—to help make their case.
The delegation told the group that they could either return to Laos, where the government would provide freedom and land, or remain in the detention center indefinitely, according to knowledgeable sources.
Resettlement in a third country was not an option, the officials said.
The 158 Hmong in Nongkhai meanwhile remain "persons of concern," according to the Bangkok Refugee Center, which works under contract with the UNHCR.
“These people have ‘person of concern’ status from the UNHCR—all of them,” a Bangkok Refugee Center staff member said.
“We have already reviewed these cases and know their identification papers have expired, but they still have that status. Their status has been recorded with the UNHCR office.”
Many Hmong fought on the side of a pro-U.S. Laotian government in the 1960s and 70s before the communist takeover of their country in 1975.
More than 300,000 Lao, Hmong included, fled to Thailand after the takeover. Most were resettled in third countries, particularly the United States, though several thousand were voluntarily repatriated.
Thailand says the Hmong have violated Thai law by entering the country illegally. Thailand and Laos agreed in 2007 that all should be repatriated.
Some 1,800 Hmong were repatriated to Laos last year, but more than 5,000 remain at the Huay Nam Khao detention camp in Thailand, along with the 158 in Nongkhai.
Original reporting by RFA Lao service director Viengsay Luangkhot in Bangkok. Translated by Max Avary. Written in English by Sarah Jackson-Han. Edited by Luisetta Mudie. Executive producer: Susan Lavery.