A UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) official has expressed dismay over Thailand’s decision to begin sending some 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to Laos.
“UNHCR is extremely dismayed that Thailand has commenced the deportations of the Lao Hmong today from the camp in Phetchabun,” Ariane Rummery, acting UNHCR spokesperson in Bangkok, told IRIN on 28 December.
“We don’t have access to the area, but we have had reports that deportations began this morning and about 400 people have been removed so far,” she said.
According to local media reports, more than a dozen trucks, accompanied by security forces, were seen transporting the first group of deportees from the camp in Huay Nam Khao village in the northern province of Phetchabun, although UNHCR has been unable to independently verify this.
UNHCR does not assume that all of these people would necessarily be refugees. However, it has in the past received information from the Thai government that some of the Hmong have international protection needs.
“For this reason we think there should have been a more transparent process and that those who do have protection needs should not be forcibly returned,” she said.
Complicating matters further is the plight of 158 UNHCR-recognized Hmong refugees currently being held separately in Nong Kai in northeastern Thailand, and Thailand’s expressed desire to deport this group as well.
“We have accessed them and we have determined that they are refugees,” she said, adding: “We would urge them [Thai authorities] to halt any plans to do that [deport the 158 Hmong] until such time that a solution that is based on either voluntary return or third country resettlement could be reached,” she said.
Over the years thousands of Hmong have sought asylum in Thailand claiming that they face persecution by the Laos government for fighting alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.
But according to Thailand, the Hmong are merely illegal economic migrants and - in line with a bilateral agreement with Laos - should be sent back.
“Forced returns of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with international practice and Thailand’s long history of protection of refugees. Such returns would violate the international principle of non-refoulement and imperil the wellbeing of many individuals,” Mark Toner, a US State Department spokesman, said on 24 December. He urged Thailand to “refrain from forcibly returning Lao Hmong who merit protection”.
This article was produced by IRIN News while it was part of the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs. Please send queries on copyright or liability to the UN. For more information: https://shop.un.org/rights-permissions