Hmong refugees sent back to Laos

Laos and Thailand plan to repatriate thousands of refugees into purpose-built villages.

    Many refugees fear they will be persecuted
    if they return to Laos
    Thailand and Laos have agreed to forcibly repatriate thousands of Hmong refugees currently living in Thailand to purpose built villages outside Vientiane, the Lao capital.

    The governments of the two South East Asian nations are to jointly sponsor the project to relocate the refugees and construction on the "new villages" has already begun.

    But the move has been criticised by rights groups and prompted concerns among the refugees, who say they will be persecuted if they return to Laos, claims the Lao authorities deny.

    General Bovaxieng Champaphanh, deputy general in the Lao People's Army told Al Jazeera: "The allegation that there is persecution ... is all fabrication."

    "We are in peace, there is no war, there is no conflict and there is no reason for people to flee the country."

    In Video

    Watch Hannah Belcher's report on the "new villages"

    Meanwhile, Thailand, which says it cannot cope with the influx of asylum seekers from neighbouring countries such as Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos, is keen for the refugees to return home.

    General Nipat Thonglek, director of Thai border affairs, told Al Jazeera that it was "very clear" that the Hmong "are just illegal migrants in Thailand".

    "The good news is the Thai government and Lao government already agree that we will work together to do the right thing by sending them back."

    'Secret war'

    In the 1960s, many of the Hmong were recruited by the US to fight its "secret war" as part of its fight against Vietnamese communists.

    When the US withdrew from the Vietnam conflict in 1975, the Lao kingdom was overthrown by the communists and an exodus of the ethnic Hmong began.

    Thousands escaped with their families to live in the forests or fled to Thailand. Many of those who did not flee were rounded up by the Lao authorities and sent to re-education camps where hundreds died.

    In Thailand, the majority of Hmong asylum seekers live in a military-patrolled camp in the country's Petchabun province. Human rights groups say they have little freedom of movement and limited access to food, water and medical services.

    Many of the refugees say they fear persecution if they return to Laos.

    'A burden in every way'

    In August, General Surayud Chulanont, Thailand's prime minister, warned that the Hmong asylum seekers could become a "never-ending problem."

    Construction of the "new villages" on the edge
    of Vientiane has already begun
    "It is a burden in every way for us," he said.

    So far eleven families have been resettled in a remote purpose built village in Laos.

    The repatriation plan has been criticised by Human Rights Watch, the US-based rights organisation.

    Brad Adams, Human Rights Watch Asia director, said in a statement: "It is shocking that Thailand is even considering the return of refugees fleeing from political persecution, rights abuses and fighting in Laos."

    Thai officials are monitoring their welfare, but the UN refugee agency and other international human rights groups have not been given access to them.

    Kia Pao Her, who alongside his family was recently repatriated as part of the project, told Al Jazeera: "Before coming back from Thailand I thought I would be tortured by the Laos government authority but after coming back I feel very safe."

    But without international monitoring, the world may never know the fate of those in the remote mountains of Laos.

    SOURCE: Al Jazeera


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