THAILAND: End mistreatment and deportation of Lao Hmong

[NEW YORK, 11 July 2008] – Thai authorities should end intimidation and forced deportations of Lao Hmong refugees detained in a camp in Petchabun province, Human Rights Watch said today. Human Rights Watch expressed concern for the well-being of some 1,300 Lao Hmong who escaped from the Huay Nam Khao camp and did not return following a mass protest two weeks ago.

“Thai authorities have kept Lao Hmong in fear and uncertainty for years to pressure them into giving up their hopes of refuge in Thailand or resettlement elsewhere,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The government should end this immoral and unlawful policy, and as a first step it should account for the missing.”

On June 20, 2008, some 5,000 ethnic Hmong from Laos left Huay Nam Khao camp, where Thai authorities had detained them since June 2007. The breakout was reportedly aimed at garnering international attention to their situation by marching to Bangkok on World Refugee Day. The Thai army established a roadblock near the camp, and after a one-night standoff the Thai army rounded up about 800 of the protestors and sent them back to Laos. The Thai army claims the repatriations were voluntary.

The day after the march, about 3,700 Lao Hmong returned to the camp, leaving 1,300 refugees unaccounted for, according to Medecins sans Frontiers (MSF), the sole international agency allowed into the camp by Thai authorities. Since then the Thai authorities have provided no information about the “missing” Lao Hmong. It is unclear whether they remain on their own in Thailand, have been deported back to Laos, or are being held in secret detention at undisclosed locations.

Hmong are targeted by the Lao authorities because of the decades-long Hmong insurgency. The Lao authorities and security forces have been responsible for torture, arbitrary detentions, sexual violence, and extrajudicial killings of ethnic Lao Hmong suspected of involvement in insurgency or other anti-government activities.

Human Rights Watch said the breakout reflected the anger and frustration of Lao Hmong at Huay Nam Khao camp. After nearly four years in Thailand the refugees are uncertain about their fate and fear a forced return to Laos. Cases of mistreatment and intimidation by Thai authorities have been documented by Human Rights Watch.

Lao Hmong refugees detained in Nong Kai province have also faced serious abuse. Thai authorities have used intimidation and the denial of basic necessities to coerce them to “voluntarily” return to Laos in violation of international refugee law. In January 2007, in response to the refugees’ attempts to resist deportation through hunger strikes, Thai authorities restricted 150 refugees to two cells, subjected them to light deprivation, separated parents from their children, denied them mosquito nets and clean clothing, and cut off access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities. Conditions were improved after an international outcry, but the refugees remain locked up in Nong Kai despite pledges from foreign governments to take them.

In May 2007, Thailand repatriated 31 Lao Hmong to Laos. In June 2007, 163 were sent back. Both repatriations occurred under the umbrella of the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security Agreement, a bilateral agreement allowing Thailand to send Lao Hmong back to Laos without affording them their right to seek asylum.

On February 27, 2008, Thai authorities at the Huay Nam Khao camp repatriated 12 Lao Hmong. One was a mother of five returned without her children, indicative of the coercion used by the Thai authorities, who claimed the returnees were “volunteers.”

The situation for the Lao Hmong in Huay Nam Khao camp escalated in mid-May 2008, when Thai authorities arrested a camp leader, Lee Xue, for speaking out about the February repatriations. The leader was released a few hours later and immediately began organising a hunger strike that others soon joined. Protests continued for a week as the Lao Hmong residents sought to get the attention and assistance of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR).

In returning refugees to Laos, Thailand is ignoring one of the most basic principles of international law – the principle of non-refoulement, which means that governments must not send people fleeing persecution back to countries where their lives or liberty would be threatened. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of non-refoulement.

Thai authorities have conducted refugee status determinations in Huay Nam Khao without revealing the criteria and procedure used in the screenings. UNHCR personnel, foreign diplomats, and human rights monitors have been denied access to monitor the screening and deportations of Lao Hmong. On July 10, the Thai authorities repatriated approximately 400 Hmong to Laos. The Thai army claims these people volunteered to return and that human rights will be respected.

Thai authorities should immediately allow independent monitors to be present in Huay Nam Khao camp, Human Rights Watch said.

“The easiest way for Thailand to overcome international criticism of its handling of the Lao Hmong issues is to show openness and transparency,” Adams said. “That can’t be done with quick tours for diplomats and journalists to meet with Lao Hmong who’ve been prepared by Thai authorities to tell positive stories.”

On July 3, the Thai Senate Foreign Affairs Committee held a discussion on the situation of the Lao Hmong in Petchabun. Human Rights Watch welcomes the Thai Senate’s desire for greater transparency and accountability, and calls upon the authorities in charge of the camp to allow the Senate full and free access to the Hmong people there. Given the fear and intimidation that has characterised Thai authorities’ treatment of Lao Hmong, senators should be allowed to meet privately with Lao Hmong in the facility, absent any military or camp personnel.

Human Rights Watch also urges the Senate to demand information regarding the whereabouts of those Lao Hmong missing after the June 20 protest. The Thai authorities should suspend all repatriations of Lao Hmong until concerns about their whereabouts and treatment are resolved. The Laotian government should also abide by its obligations towards the Hmong population under international human rights law, particularly with respect to those Hmong returned to Laos.

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