Bordered by authoritarian regimes, Thailand has long struggled to deal with waves of asylum seekers. But Bangkok's decision to repatriate ethnic Hmong to Laos this week stands as a blot on the nation's reputation as a humane port of refuge.
A force of 5,000 Thai army and police personnel forcibly expelled more than 4,500 men, women and children to one of Southeast Asia's most repressive states Monday. The group included 158 refugees held at Nong Khai who were accepted for resettlement in countries such as Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States. The rest, held at Huay Nam Khao, were denied access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, which stood ready to evaluate their asylum claims. In the lead-up to the deportation, the army jammed the Hmong's cell-phone signals and rounded up 130 leaders, presumably to squash attempts to protest.
Thailand has tried to put a good face on its actions, claiming the Hmong were "economic migrants," rather than refugees deserving of U.N. protection, and that their return was voluntary. Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya said Tuesday that Laos guaranteed protection for the repatriated group, but didn't provide any specific details. Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva assured local media outlets Saturday that the government would "take law and humanitarian principles into consideration" in dealing with the Hmong.
Yet the evidence suggests otherwise. Bangkok denied multiple requests from UNHCR to conduct refugee screening for the Hmong held at Huay Nam Khao, ignored appeals from the U.N., U.S. and European Union not to send the Hmong back to Laos, and blatantly violated the principle of nonrefoulement under international customary law, which prohibits the forcible return of refugees to places where they would likely face persecution. The Thai government has refused to reveal the contents of its bilateral agreement with Laos concerning the repatriation.
Laos has a terrible human-rights track record, especially concerning the Hmong, who allied with the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Since then, the Lao government has subjected the Hmong to extrajudicial killings, arbitrary detention, enforced disappearances and systematic discrimination. The military still pursues Hmong groups in jungle hideouts that it accuses of anti-government activity and insurgency. Over the years, hundreds of thousands of Hmong have passed through refugee camps in Thailand on the way to resettlement overseas-which makes the forced expulsion of the Hmong on Monday all the more puzzling and troubling.
While all the Hmong deportees are potentially at risk, Human Rights Watch is especially concerned for the safety of the 130 Hmong held at Huay Nam Khao, who were singled out by the Thai army as camp leaders. They were segregated from other Hmong deportees, detained in mobile prison trucks and handed directly over to the Lao army. We also have serious concerns for the safety of several hundred repatriated Hmong whom the Thai army screened and found to have valid protection claims.
If history is any guide, the Laos government isn't likely to release any information about the repatriated Hmong. Vientiane-based U.N. officials and foreign diplomats have historically only been allowed heavily scripted visits to model Hmong resettlement sites, with Laos government officials ever-present. The Lao government says it will treat the Hmong humanely, yet so far it has not provided detailed information specifying the location of all Hmong returnees, and it has made no commitment to allow the continuous and unfettered international monitoring which is necessary to ensure their safety.
Thailand's hands aren't tied. Bangkok could immediately release the full list of Hmong forcibly returned to Laos, along with information derived in the Thai army screening process at Huay Nam Khao, so that UNHCR and concerned governments can track the fate of the repatriated refugees. The U.S. government has made multiple requests for the list but so far has received nothing. Thailand could also to press Vientiane to ensure international monitors have unfettered access to all Hmong returnees. And ultimately, targeted sanctions against the Lao government and its leadership could be considered.
Thailand has faced large refugee flows from Burma and Laos. But the U.S. and other concerned nations, in concert with the U.N., have been trying to work with Thailand to process and place refugees in welcoming nations abroad. Monday's forced repatriation may seem expedient, but it isn't humane, nor is it the only solution.
Elaine Pearson is deputy Asia director at Human Rights Watch.