The more than 4,000 Hmong people forcibly deported by Thailand have arrived in Laos, despite protests from rights groups and the UN. Among the 4,000 is a group of 158 Hmong who are officially recognised as refugees by the UN.
The BBC reports that the Hmong see themselves as legitimate refugees, because they say they face discrimination in Laos for fighting on the American side during the Vietnam War, when they were known as Montagnards. The Thai government, however, sees them as illegal economic migrants.
The report says the 4,000 refugees were removed from a camp in Thailand’s northern Phetchabun Province, where they had been for the past five years.
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) said Thailand’s actions had set a grave example. A UNHCR spokesperson said third countries had offered to resettle the refugees, but that the Thai authorities had rejected this. The UNHCR’s Arianne Rannery said:
Discussions were ongoing and had not reached a conclusion. But now they've been deported and have now been forced to return to a place they had fled from.
Earlier, Rannery had told the IRIN humanitarian news agency:
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.
The agency also quoted a US State Department spokesman, Mark Toner:
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.
The UNHCR will now seek to establish contact with the refugees in Laos, although it has no formal presence in the country.
Thailand has said it has received assurances from the government of Laos that the returning Hmong will not be mistreated.