BANGKOK—Thai and Lao authorities said Thursday they had repatriated 452 ethnic Hmong who had fled to Thailand to seek asylum abroad, but a Hmong witness said 40 others fled to avoid returning home, where advocates fear they will face persecution.
A group of 452 Hmong from 112 families was transferred to Lao authorities at the Borikhamsay border checkpoint opposite Thailand’s Nongkhai province, officials said.
Forty of them disappeared."
Khenethong Nouanthasing of the Lao Foreign Ministry said in an interview that all 452 volunteered to return to Laos and would stay in a temporary housing center before returning to their native villages.
One Hmong witness, however, speaking on condition of anonymity, disputed the claim that the group comprised voluntary returnees only.
“Today at 5:30 a.m., Thai military officials announced that this time there are 492 Hmong-Lao returnees,” the man said.
“Forty of them disappeared,” he said, adding that 16 of the returning families had been forced to return to Laos.
An agreement was reached to repatriate a total of about 5,000 Hmong tribal people when Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya met with his Laotian counterpart Tuesday, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Thani Thongpakee said.
The Hmong had been living in Huay Nam Khao village in Phetchabun province, 300 km (190 miles) north of Bangkok. Laos previously denied they were Laotian, describing them as Thailand's problem.
Many say they will face persecution from the Lao government because of their Vietnam War-era ties with the United States.
Many 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 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.
Kasit said Thailand has offered to pay 1.5 million baht (U.S. $42,800) to Laos to help build shelters for those who return.
A separate group of 158 Hmong asylum-seekers who have U.N.-certified refugee status will be allowed to leave for third countries willing to accept them, Kasit said.
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.
Last month, members of the U.S. Congress wrote 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 harm’s way.
Original reporting by Oratai Singhananth and Viengsay Luangkhot for RFA's Lao service. Lao service director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive producer: Susan Lavery. Edited and produced in English by Sarah Jackson-Han.