Thailand said yesterday it had completed its expulsion of thousands of ethnic Hmong to communist Laos, as human rights activists and diplomats voiced fears for their safety across the border.
Lieutenant General Niphat Thonglek of the army’s border affairs department said more than 4,000 Hmong were returned to Laos on Monday night, despite international protests over concerns they could face persecution.
A Thai force of 5,000 armed with batons and shields had entered a camp in northern Phetchabun Province before dawn on Monday and loaded 4,371 asylum-seeking Hmong on to trucks for the trip to Laos.
The Hmong, who were seeking asylum on claims they faced persecution by the Laotian regime for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War, were taken to the central province of Bolikhamsay in Laos, Niphat said.
Thailand said they were economic migrants and did not allow the UN refugee agency to assess if any were political refugees, although several hundred were thought to be in need of protection.
Niphat said a separate group of 158 Hmong, who were screened by the UN and recognized as refugees, were also sent back Monday from the Thai border town of Nong Khai, despite offers of resettlement in third countries.
Thailand has said the Laotian regime assured them the thousands of Hmong would be safe on their return.
But a statement from rights group Amnesty International said there were “concerns that provisions to meet the humanitarian needs of the returnees once in Laos are inadequate.”
The UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) also said Thailand had breached international law by returning the Hmong with UN refugee status.
“We would express our dismay that they have gone ahead with the group of 158 people in Nong Khai who had been recognized as refugees by the UNHCR,” agency spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said, 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 said.
Thailand said the refugees 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 recognized refugees will be allowed to be resettled in third countries after their return to Laos,” Rummery said.
“We certainly hope Thailand remains engaged in the issue to ensure that these can take place,” she said.
“The Lao government pledges to take care of them well while waiting for third countries to contact and take them,” Niphat said.
But a Western diplomat in Bangkok said they had “much more ambiguous” signals directly from officials in Laos.