The UN Refugee Agency called on the Thai Government to cease the forced repatriation of Hmong refugees to Laos. The Thai government has begun to send about 4,000 Lao Hmong refugees living in one camp back to their home country involuntarily, saying that most of the Hmong in Thai refugee camps were simply economic migrants. (The Hmong fought on the American side during the Vietnam war, and are fearful of retribution by the communist Laotian government.) The Thai claim may have had some credibility if they granted the UN Refugee Agency access to the camps to assess asylum claims. Instead, these camps have been off-limits to the UN.
In international law, the forced return of refugees is called refoulement. And it is illegal. From UNHCR:
The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, António Guterres, expressed his dismay today at Thailand’s deportation of Lao Hmong. “I call upon the Thai Government to halt the forced return of the Lao Hmong, some of whom have international protection needs,” he said.
This morning Thailand began deporting the first group of an estimated 4000 Lao Hmong from the Huay Nam Khao camp in Petchabun, to whom UNHCR has not been granted access. The deportations will continue over the coming days and, as announced by the Thai Government, will include a second group of 158 recognized refugees held in detention in Nong Kai.
On Thursday, the High Commissioner issued an appeal to the Thai Government not to go ahead with its planned returns of Lao Hmong. In his statement he noted that the refoulement, or forced return, would “not only endanger the protection of the refugees but set a very grave international example.”
While UNHCR has not been granted access to the Lao Hmong in Petchabun, it understands from the Thai Government that according to its own screening process a number of them have international protection needs. UNHCR has long maintained that the process should be transparent and that no one with a valid protection claim should be forcibly returned to Laos.
Of the second group, comprising 158 Lao Hmong held in Nong Kai, all have been recognized as refugees by UNHCR but Thailand has so far denied them access to resettlement in a third country. To break the impasse for the refugees who have already spent three years in detention, UNHCR has been in discussions with Thailand, Laos and resettlement countries regarding a solution. Any solution needs to be firmly premised on the principle of voluntary return, with specific assurances and safeguards from all concerned stakeholders.
UNHCR urges Thailand to halt the deportations to allow time for solutions of voluntary return and third country resettlement in a manner that respects the cardinal international principle of non-refoulement, or no forced return.