Hmong: Australia-bound Refugees Stranded in Secret Laos Camps
Below is an article published by The Age:
More than 4000 asylum seekers, including a group accepted for resettlement by Australia, are being detained behind razor wire in secret camps in Laos, raising fresh concerns for their welfare.
The asylum seekers, all ethnic Hmong, last month were forcibly repatriated from Thailand to Laos, where refugee advocates say they face persecution and discrimination.
Their deportation from Thailand sparked an outcry, including from countries that had already agreed to accept some of them. Australia is expected to take more than 40.
The Age this week reached the main entrance of a camp where some of them are being held. Hundreds of asylum seekers, mainly women and children, stood barefoot in the dirt, behind three metres of razor wire, as loudspeakers exhorted them to move away.
But we got no further. As soon as we arrived, our car was surrounded by soldiers who demanded to know who we were and why we were there.
Members of our party were taken away and interrogated about our intentions. Officers demanded to see our passports, and our car was searched. Our cameras and mobile phones were taken and examined for any images of the camp.
After being photographed, we were forced back into the car and told we could not leave it. ''You cannot be here,'' we were told. ''No one from outside is allowed here.''
The camp is about 20 kilometres north of the town of Paksan, at the end of a dirt road in a valley, a couple of hundred metres from an army camp.
Blue tarpaulins blocked much of the view of the camp, but the tops of scores of tents could be seen, in close rows. No grass or paved areas could be seen, and there appeared to be no permanent buildings.
Thailand, facing a huge influx of asylum seekers, is anxious not to be seen as a haven. But it has been strongly criticised for deporting the Hmong.
The Government in Laos says concerns over the welfare of the Hmong are groundless and that they will be reintegrated back into Lao society, with access to housing, transport, and farming land if needed.
But refugee advocates are concerned that despite many of the Hmong holding United Nations refugee status, this is not recognised by Laos and they may never be allowed to leave the country.
In a day-long military operation on December 28, more than 4300 asylum seekers were taken from a Thai refugee camp at Huay Nam Khao, and another 158 were deported from a camp in the town of Nong Khai.
The 158 were all assessed by the UN refugee agency as having genuine asylum claims and facing danger if returned to Laos. The UN was never given access to the larger group.
Australia had already agreed to resettle 18 of the asylum seekers and, on the day they were deported, interviewed another 17 with a view to granting them humanitarian visas.
Canada, the United States and the Netherlands have also indicated they are willing to settle some of the asylum seekers, but Thailand and Laos say they are ''economic migrants'' with no legitimate asylum claims.
A US congressional delegation was recently allowed to visit a separate Hmong resettlement camp at Pha Lak, south of Paksan, under strict supervision. No foreign groups have been allowed to visit Paksan.
The UN refugee agency has formally asked Laos for access to the Hmong, but has not received an answer. UN Secretary General Ban Ki-moon wrote he was ''deeply concerned'' by the deportations, and called on the Thai and Lao governments to find a ''humane solution''.
Australia, which had condemned the deportations as ''highly disappointing'' and in breach of international law, has urged Laos to allow international access to the Hmong asylum seekers and allow resettlement of those already given valid visas.
The Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade said Australian officials had provided Laos with a list of 47 people of particular concern, including some with humanitarian visas.
''We remain committed to resettling Lao Hmong from this group,'' a spokeswoman said. ''We urge Laos to maintain and provide reliable information on the whereabouts of this group.''
But the Lao Government has said no one will get access to the Hmong asylum seekers until they have been resettled within Laos. It won't tell other countries or the UN where they are being held.
''The specific location of members of the Nong Khai group remains unclear,'' a spokesman for Australia's Immigration Department told The Age.
Historically a hill tribe in southern China who migrated across South-East Asia, Hmong were secretly recruited by the CIA to fight alongside US forces during the Vietnam War and in the ''secret war'' in Laos.
Their contribution was overlooked after the conflicts, and they became known as America's ''forgotten allies''.
When the communist Pathet Lao took power in Laos in 1975, thousands of Hmong fled the country. Tens of thousands of them ended up in the US, while just over 2000 have moved to Australia.
Some of those who stayed behind in Laos waged a low-level insurgency. They have long suffered persecution, including arbitrary arrest and internment in re-education camps.