BANGKOK—Authorities in Thailand have repatriated 56 more Hmong migrants from its huge Ban Huay Nam Khao refugee camp to neighboring Laos, the fifth group to be sent home since repatriations began. Up to 8,000 Hmong have lived in the camp since 2004.
The Hmong in this group said they volunteered to go, although others remain on hunger strike to protest the repatriations amid calls for a United Nations-administered refugee screening and resettlement program.
Lao and Thai officials said members of the group, who returned to Laos on May 30, had been thoroughly interviewed about their situation back in Laos. The Thai government task force that deals with the issue also gave each family between 10,000 and 15,000 baht to help them start over. Individuals received 6,000 baht.
“For about one week they will be questioned extensively about how they ended up in Huay Nam Khao, about their villages of origin, if they still have family there, and if they have the means to make a living,” Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy told reporters.
“If they do, they will be sent directly to their families,” he said.
They will then be sent to Paksane district, Bolikhamxay province, for more questioning and “education” prior to being sent home, he added, except for those who no longer have land, houses, and those who used to practice slash-and-burn farming.
I made up my mind that it would be better to go back to Laos. I came to Thailand because I was misled by others."
Xeng Bird Tho Ber See, 24
This group, he said, would be sent to Pha Lak village in Vientiane province, where basic infrastructure is in place as well as land made available for them to farm and make a living.What the Hmong say
Lao Hmong refugee Xeng Bird Tho Ber See, 24, is one of those who volunteered to return to Laos.
“I made up my mind that it would be better to go back to Laos,” he said in an interview. “I came to Thailand because I was misled by others.”
“While in Huay Nam Khao I cannot make a living, and I would rather go back to Laos where I can farm and grow rice, because my family is in Laos,” he said.
Xeng Bird sold his family inheritance about two years ago to pay the 10,000-baht fee to the smugglers who took him, his wife, and children to Thailand. He said he and his family now hoped to farm and raise animals with the relatives he had left behind.
He said life there would be better than in the harsh conditions of the Thai refugee camp.
One 40-year-old returnee, Chong Toua Xe Hue, from Baan Nam Bak, Luang Prabang province, said he had decided to take his family back to Laos with this group.
“When I left Laos for Thailand I was so sure that I would get a chance to go to a third country. Now I know that there’s no way I can go. I made up my mind to take my family back to Laos and start over again,” he said.Hunger strike
A number of Hmong remain vehemently opposed to returning to Laos, however, and emotions in that group are running high.
Thai authorities, however, have cast doubt on many Hmong claims that they have been persecuted, saying most are simply illegal economic migrants in search of a better life.
On May 20, a group of about 30 Hmong on hunger strike at the Ban Huay Nam Khao camp said they were political refugees who had fled political persecution and ethnic cleansing in Laos and demanded resettlement and political asylum.
“For the last 30 years, our Lao Hmong people have been attacked, persecuted, starved to death, tortured and killed by the Lao regime, leaving us with nowhere to live and nothing to eat,” they said in a statement.
“We have stayed here in Thailand for four years now, and we have faced mistreatment and isolation and threats of forced repatriation... We want to be resettled in third countries,” the group said. They called for intervention by the United Nations, the United States, and international NGOs.
The medical humanitarian group Doctors Without Borders (MSF), the only non-governmental group currently working in the camp, said some Hmong describe a life in Laos spent “fleeing violent attacks and persecution, witnessing the murder of family members, suffering rape, surviving bullet and shrapnel wounds, and enduring malnutrition and disease.”
And in a May 16 letter, a group of U.S. senators called on U.S. Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice to intervene with Thai Prime Minister Samak to prevent the repatriations.Lao defense
The Lao Foreign Ministry spokesman rejected criticisms of the program by overseas groups and protesters within the Thai refugee camp.
“We are well aware that there is a third party that is trying very hard to distort the truth. Therefore the Lao and Thai governments have had good collaboration all along and have been trying to be transparent all along as well,” Yong Chanthalangsy said.
Thai officials said that many of the Lao Hmong in the camp have expressed the wish to go back to Laos after they realized that the promise—by those who smuggled them across the border—of resettlement in third countries wouldn’t likely materialize.
They said they expected an increasing level of cooperation from the Lao Hmong with the voluntary repatriation program.Laos invites observers
So far, 326 people have volunteered to return to Laos under the repatriation program.
Lao officials say they are willing to allow observers to check up on the conditions experienced by returning Hmong refugees, and that the government stands ready to take back all the Lao Hmong from Ban Houay Nam Khao camp.
These Hmong, who claim to have fled persecution in neighboring Laos, are recognized as refugees in need of protection and should be allowed to leave Thailand to resettle elsewhere, the UNHCR has said.
Australia, Canada, the United States, and the Netherlands have offered to receive some of those who are deemed genuine political asylum-seekers for resettlement.
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, mostly Hmong, fled to Thailand after the takeover. Most were resettled in third countries, particularly the United States, though several thousand were voluntarily repatriated.
Thailand regards the Hmong as migrants rather than refugees and says they have violated Thai law by entering the country illegally. Thai authorities deported more than 300 of them in 2006.
Original reporting by RFA’s Lao service. Director: Viengsay Luangkhot. Executive director: Susan Lavery. Written for the Web in English by Luisetta Mudie. Edited by Sarah Jackson-Han.