Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva
Pitsanulok Road, Dusit
Re: Prevent Deportation of Lao Hmong Asylum Seekers and Refugees
Dear Prime Minister,
We write to urge you to prevent the imminent deportation of Lao Hmong asylum seekers from Huay Nam Khao camp in Petchabun province.
Comments made by the commander of the Third Army Region, Maj. Gen. Thanongsak Abhirakyothin, on December 9, and by the defense ministry spokesman, Col. Thanathip Sawangsaeng, on December 23, indicate that all of the approximately 4,000 Lao Hmong asylum seekers currently detained in the Thai Army-administered Huay Nam Khao detention camp will be deported by the end of this year.
Contrary to your remarks to the media on December 23 that Thailand will "take law and humanitarian principles into consideration," should this deportation go forward, Thai authorities will be committing serious violations of international human rights and refugee law.
Thailand has long maintained that the Lao Hmong asylum seekers in Huay Nam Khao camp are illegal migrants who may be deported back to Laos. But under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation not to forcibly return persons to places where their life or freedom is at risk (nonrefoulement).
Human Rights Watch is concerned that international standards have not been met regarding screening measures to determine whether the individuals in Huay Nam Khao have legitimate protection concerns should they be returned to Laos.
A screening mechanism at Huay Nam Khao camp has been implemented by the Thai army, rather than by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees. But the military's screening lacks transparency as Thai authorities have refused to clarify the criteria and methods used. For the past two years, the Thai government has refused to grant the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees access to the camp or permitted it to undertake any refugee status determination processes with the Lao Hmong held at Huay Nam Khao.
As a result of these serious flaws, many Lao Hmong who should have been recognized as refugees under international law are at risk of being unlawfully forced back to Laos.
The Lao government continues to carry out military operations against many Lao Hmong communities that it accuses of anti-government activity and insurgency. The Lao Hmong population has been subject to persecution by Lao authorities, including arbitrary arrests and detention, and the suppression of religious freedom.
Human Rights Watch seriously questions the claims made by yourself and other Thai officials that the deportation of Lao Hmong from Huay Nam Khao camp will be implemented on a "voluntary" basis. Recent media reports indicate that the Thai army has significantly stepped up its troop presence around the camp, conducted an intensive search of the camp on December 23 to remove all sharp objects, and seized camp residents' mobile phones. These actions by the Thai army raise further doubts that the return of the Lao Hmong at Huay Nam Khao will be voluntary.
International standards for voluntary repatriation include counseling for those contemplating return and preparation of a voluntary return document (which includes a photograph of the person, their statement requesting return to their country, and a signature). In addition, the person has the right to change their mind at any point during the process. Independent third-party monitoring is also important to ensure international confidence in the process.
Regrettably, these elements are entirely missing in the planned deportation of Lao Hmong from Huay Nam Khao camp. During 2009, heavily armed Thai soldiers have been deployed to round up deportees. On a number of occasions during the year, Thai soldiers prevented Lao Hmong asylum seekers from accessing food and medical services provided by humanitarian nongovernmental organizations, evidently seeking to physically and mentally break their resistance to their deportation. Such coercive, intimidating, and brutal measures are clearly the opposite of the concept of "voluntary repatriation."
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees today also raised serious concerns about the pending deportation in a statement by the high commissioner, Antonio Guterres, who said that a decision by Thai authorities to proceed without clearly ensuring such returns are truly voluntary "would not only endanger the protection of the refugees but set a very grave international example."
You have stated clearly that your foreign policy will be based on human rights principles and international law. Human Rights Watch urges you to ensure this protection of basic rights also applies to refugees and asylum seekers within Thailand's borders.
So again, we respectfully ask you to ensure there be no deportation of any of Lao Hmong asylum seekers from Huay Nam Khao camp. We urge you to guarantee that all camp residents will have full access to screening and status determination procedures that meet international standards prior to any deportation.
We look forward to your attention and response to these urgent matters of concern.
Deputy Director, Asia Division
Human Rights Watch