Thailand's decision to repatriate large numbers of Hmong refugees back to Laos is the latest in a worrying trend in South East Asia - one that risks undermining the United Nations and the freedoms of thousands of people
A relatively peaceful haven in a bad neighbourhood, Thailand has taken in hordes of South-East Asians fleeing war, persecution and poverty. But the welcome is wearing thin. This week the Thai army loaded 4,351 ethnic Hmong onto lorries and drove them to the border with Laos, whence they had fled. None was allowed access to United Nations officials, who might have classified them as refugees deserving protection and eventual resettlement. Yet Thai officials called their eviction “voluntary”.
Recruited by the CIA to fight in the 1960s, the Hmong were among the losers in the Vietnam war. Hundreds of thousands fled Laos after the Communist victory in 1975 and eventually moved to America. In 2004 America agreed to take in another 14,000 or so Hmong who had been staying at a Thai temple. Those bundled back to Laos this week had drifted to another makeshift camp in Phetchabun province, hoping to claim international asylum. A separate group of 158 refugees were deported from a detention centre on the border.
A barrage of American, EU and UN criticism failed to stop the expulsion. António Guterres, the UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said the repatriation would “set a very grave international example”. Human-rights groups say the Hmong may face persecution in Laos and that their forced return violates international law. Those linked to ragtag Hmong rebels in remote mountain areas are deemed particularly vulnerable.
Laos has insisted that all who return will be resettled peacefully. It denies discriminating against the Hmong, one of dozens of minorities in a poor, landlocked country. But Thailand’s refusal to grant the UNHCR access to the camp makes it unknowable how many had genuine fears of persecution and how many were merely economic migrants.
Thailand’s prime minister, Abhisit Vejjajiva, came to power a year ago promising to restore the rule of law. That pledge does not seem to extend to refugees. Last January the Thai army was revealed to have pushed back hundreds of Rohingya Muslim boat people from Myanmar who then drowned or went missing at sea.
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