|Dozens of Hmong refugees, including many children, are being held in a Thai detention camp|
The fate of 8,000 Hmong refugees who fled Laos for Thailand is hanging in the balance as the two countries wrap up talks on their future.
An ethnic minority in Laos, the Hmong fought with the US against communist forces in the 1960s and 1970s, as the Vietnam War spilled over into the region.
After the US pulled out of the area in 1975, hundreds of thousands of Hmong fled Laos as refugees.
Almost 150,000 resettled in the US and thousands have poured into Thailand.
|Hmong who have fled to Thailand say they fear
what will happen if they are forced to return
Until recently, Thailand was a safe haven for Hmong refugees. The country trained the Hmong to fight with US troops when the Vietnam War spilled into Laos.
But it appears to have had a change of heart.
It now labels them “illegal immigrants” and not refugees, and is refusing to turn them over for resettlement despite offers from other countries.
Thailand is forging closer ties with Laos, and Thai authorities – who recently agreed to return Hmong refugees – have deported scores, ignoring calls from the UN to halt deportations until their claims for refugee status are individually assessed.
Many Hmong say they fear they will be tortured in Laos for backing the US against the communists who now rule the country.
The US state department has criticised Thailand for earlier repatriations and Thai authorities to screen returnees so that those who might be persecuted would not be sent back.
|Until recently Thailand was a safe
haven for Hmong refugees
In November, Thai police raided a Bangkok suburb and detained about 150 Hmong.
They were taken to a detention centre in the town of Nong Khai, near the border with Laos.
One 19-year-old woman, whose parents were among those taken away by Thai police, spoke to Al Jazeera on condition of anonymity because she fears for her safety.
“Life is so difficult now,” she said. “The Thai police are always looking out to arrest the Hmong refugees, especially when we go out to get food. We don’t know what to expect.”
Al Jazeera visited the Nong Khai detention centre and found dozens of people who had been kept for nine months in facilities meant to hold them for just two weeks.
More than half the inmates at the Nong Khai centre are children – five of them were born inside the centre.
|Hmong refugees have staged hunger strikes
or threatened to commit suicide
Inmates are allowed outside for two hours each day for exercise and the United Nations has described conditions in the centre as “inhumane”.
Al Jazeera’s camera was not allowed inside the detention centre, but I found my way into the two cells where some the Hmong are locked behind bars most of the day.
There was barely any light, but I saw an elderly woman lying on the floor in tears, there were babies with their heads covered in rashes, the heat was unbearable and there was no privacy.
A handful of refugees have escaped from the centre, while the United Nations’ refugee agency, the UNHCR, says others have staged hunger strikes and threatened to commit suicide.
Maria Corinna Miguel-Quicho, a UNHCR senior protection officer, says urgent action is needed.
“I feel something has to be done to improve their conditions in general and it has to be on the basis of their humanitarian needs,” she told Al Jazeera.
Roger Arnold is one of many Hmong campaigners who is losing hope as Thai and Lao officials make plans to send nearly 8,000 Hmong, including the Nong Khai group back to Laos.
|Many Hmong have been forced to live in
hiding in the mountainous jungles of Laos
“I’ve been up here nine times to try and reassure them that they won’t be deported to Laos,” he says.
“You know a lot of them are suffering from post trauma from their experiences in Laos – they’re absolutely terrified. And then you get bad news and it just becomes very frustrating.”
Human rights and exiled groups accuse Laos of human rights abuses against the Hmong, including rape, torture and killings by the military.
Sunai Phasuk of the Bangkok office of Human Rights Watch says there is no protective mechanism to ensure the refugees’ well-being after the return to Laos.
“Without the UNHCR to protect these people, and by forcing the Hmong refugees to cross the border into an unknown future, Thailand is now violating international laws.”
Laos consistently denies any abuses against the ethnic minority group, but security forces have been cracking down on Hmong villagers and arrested three Hmong Americans last week.
Despite assurances from Laos that they will not be persecuted if they go back, Hmong refugees forced to live in hiding in Bangkok say it is just too dangerous to return.