Thailand backed down yesterday on a plan to deport 153 Hmong refugees to neighboring Laos after dozens barricaded themselves inside a detention center and threatened to commit suicide.
The migrants, held at a detention center near the Thai-Laos border since December for illegally entering the kingdom, were due to be sent back to the communist-ruled nation on Tuesday despite risk of persecution there.
But 54 men blocked themselves inside cells in the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Center and threatened to commit suicide, forcing the government to call off the move late on Tuesday.
"Thailand is not going to force them to go back to Laos," Thai Prime Minister Surayud Chulanont told reporters yesterday, adding that he would visit the center near the northeastern border today.
The Office of the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), which has been denied access to the Hmong migrants since Monday, welcomed the decision and planned to hold talks with Thai authorities to consider their resettlement options.
"We are extremely relieved that the deportation was called off yesterday," said Giuseppe de Vincentis, deputy regional representative for the UNHCR in Bangkok.
Police in Nhong Khai said some of the 153 were involved in political activity and refused to return to Laos because of security fears.
The men have refused to come out of their barricaded cells, said the Fact Finding Commission, a US-based pro-Hmong activist group, despite the government's decision to abandon its deportation plans.
The UN is also in talks with the US, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands about resettling the Hmong migrants, de Vincentis said.
Thai immigration authorities would interview them to hear their resettlement wishes, government spokesman Yongyuth Mayalarp said.
The US embassy in Bangkok declined to comment.
Some Hmong, a hill tribe people, were allied with the US during the "Secret War" in Laos that was part of the wider Vietnam conflict.
Around 6,500 Hmong people live in a refugee camp in Phetchabun Province, also in northeast Thailand, where they are awaiting a diplomatic solution between the neighbors and possible intervention of a third party to help them.
Some have fled persecution in Laos while others, particularly in more recent times, have sought to escape rural poverty.
Lao exile groups and human rights activists say unknown numbers of Hmong remain in mountainous jungle areas of Laos, hiding from attacks by the Lao military -- a claim the Vientiane regime denies.
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