(New York) - The Thai government should stop forcibly returning Hmong asylum seekers to Laos without independent monitoring or refugee screening, Human Rights Watch said today.
On February 27, Thai soldiers used police dogs to force 12 Lao Hmong from a camp in Petchabun province onto trucks for repatriation to Laos, according to Radio Free Asia’s Lao service. The military authorities later allowed a mother of five to return to the camp and call to her children over a megaphone, but the children hid from the authorities. In a televised ceremony on February 28, the other 11 ethnic Hmong were handed over to Laotian authorities. The Department of Border Affairs deputy director, Major General Voravit Darunchoo, told reporters that the 11 “wholeheartedly volunteered to go back to their country.” The repatriation took place just before an official visit to Laos by Thailand’s new Prime Minister Samak Sundaravej.
“The Thai government’s claim that these were ‘volunteers’ who wanted to return to Laos is highly dubious,” said Bill Frelick, refugee policy director at Human Rights Watch. “Volunteers don’t need police dogs to coax them onto trucks.”
This forced repatriation was just the latest in a series of joint actions by Laotian and Thai military authorities in violation of international standards for the protection of asylum seekers fleeing persecution. Under customary international law, the principle of non-refoulement protects people from being sent back to countries where their lives or liberty would be threatened.
In May 2007, the Thai government denied the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) permission to conduct refugee status determinations in Thailand, insisting that it would screen asylum seekers itself.
“Without a fair and transparent procedure to screen refugees, Human Rights Watch considers Thailand’s forcible return of these 11 Hmong to Laos as refoulement, a violation of its international law obligations,” Frelick said. Since the 1970s, the Laotian authorities have targeted ethnic Hmong in Laos and subjected them to arbitrary arrest and detention, torture, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings.
Human Rights Watch noted that in 2005 the UN Human Rights Committee, the expert body that monitors state compliance with the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights, expressed concern about the imminent deportation of Hmong refugees and asylum seekers in Petchabun province to Laos, where they feared persecution.
Following a September 2007 meeting, the Thai and Lao governments reaffirmed their commitment to repatriate the 8,000 Hmong in the Petchabun camp by the end of 2008 (to view a Medicins Sans Frontieres briefing paper on the situation of the 8,000 Hmong in Petchabun province, please click here).
In February 2008, Thai Foreign Minister Noppadon Pattama said that the governments of Thailand and Laos had tasked their respective defense ministries to arrange for repatriation of Hmong to Laos at the rate of about 200 returnees per month. The agreement does not provide for international agencies to observe the repatriation process.
“Given plans of Thai and Lao defense officials to repatriate thousands of Hmong refugees by the end of this year, the forcible return of these 11 people last week should sound a grave warning,” said Frelick.
The agreement builds on a May 2007 Thailand-Laos border security accord that allows Thailand to send Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos upon arrival in Thailand. Later that same month, Thailand forcibly returned 31 Hmong to Laos. On June 9, 2007, 163 Hmong asylum seekers were rounded up and forcibly driven back over the border. In August 2007, then-Thai Prime Minister Gen. Surayud Chulanont made his government’s position clear, stating: “If we don’t deal with this problem, we will have to be home to more illegal immigrants. It is a burden in every way for us.”
The Thai government denies nearly all requests by representatives of foreign governments, UN agencies, journalists, and nongovernmental organizations for entrance into the fenced-off facility in Petchabun province where roughly 8,000 Hmong are currently restricted. The authorities denied a Human Rights Watch visit to the camp in mid-2007. UNHCR personnel are also barred from the camp. The only organization that is allowed into the facility, Medecins Sans Frontieres (MSF), currently provides all services for the Hmong living there.
About 150 UNHCR-recognized Hmong refugees are locked up at the Immigration Detention Center in Nong Khai province in cramped and degrading conditions where they have repeatedly faced the threat of deportation to Laos, despite pledges of foreign governments to resettle them elsewhere.
Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. However, Human Rights Watch noted that under customary international law, the Thai government has an obligation of non-refoulement.