THAILAND: Hmong refugee deportation breaches law

[BANGKOK, 28 December 2009] - Thailand has breached international law by forcing 158 recognised Hmong refugees, mainly children, back to Laos along with thousands of asylum-seekers, the UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) said Tuesday.

The group, which had been held in a detention centre in the border town of Nong Khai for three years, was sent back Monday despite offers of resettlement in third countries because of their fears of persecution in Laos.

"We would express our dismay that they have gone ahead with the group of 158 people in Nong Khai who had been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR," said the agency's spokeswoman Ariane Rummery, adding that almost 90 were children.

"The forcible return of refugees to their country of origin is a violation of international customary law. It's a departure from Thailand's longstanding humanitarian practice as a major country of asylum in the region and that's a very grave example internationally," she told AFP.

Thai army Lieutenant General Niphat Thonglek said the group left "voluntarily" on Monday night along with more than 4,000 Hmong asylum-seekers from another camp in northern Phetchabun province.

Members of the larger group expelled on Monday claimed they faced persecution in communist Laos for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War.

But Thailand said they were economic migrants and did not allow the UNHCR to assess if any were political refugees.

However the 158 Hmong in Nong Khai were properly screened by the UNHCR and found to be refugees in need of protection. But Thailand said they must return to Laos before they can take up offers of resettlement in Western countries.

"The Thai government has told UNHCR that it had received assurances from Laos that the group of 158 recognised refugees will be allowed to be resettled in third countries after their return to Laos," said Rummery.

"We certainly hope Thailand remains engaged in the issue to ensure that these can take place."

Niphat said the larger group from Phetchabun had been taken to the central province of Bolikhamsay, while the Hmong from Nong Khai were transported to the Lao capital Vientiane.

"The Lao government pledges to take care of them well while waiting for third countries to contact and take them," he said.

But a Western diplomat in Bangkok told AFP they had "much more ambiguous" signals directly from officials in Laos.

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