The Irrawaddy News
By ALEX ELLGEE
Around 50 Hmong refugees who were forcibly repatriated by Thailand to Laos on Dec. 28 have been imprisoned in Paksan jail, according to the Fact Finding Commission (FFC), an American based NGO.
It is suggested that the group may have been isolated because of their role as leaders in the camps and during the “secret war,” when the CIA hired the Hmong as foot soldiers to prevent the spread of communism during the Vietnam War.
to deport thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers
to Laos in December. (Photo: Reuters)
Using a secret network of undercover researchers called “blackbirds,” the FFC were able to get confirmation on Tuesday morning about the group’s imprisonment.
“We received confirmation from our contact that around 50 leaders have been imprisoned,” said Bhou Than of the FFC.
“We are very concerned about what is happening to them and expect that more will face similar detention in the coming months.”
Speaking to The Irrawaddy on Thursday, Amnesty International confirmed that one group has been separated from other returnees and expressed concern about their treatment by the Laos government.
“We are aware that some of the leaders have been separated from the group, taken out of Vientiane and remain unaccounted for,” said Benjamin Zawacki, a Bangkok-based researcher for Amnesty.
“Our primary concern for them is torture, which we know is often employed in Laos’ prisons and could be used as a punitive measure for them bringing shame to Laos or for information gathering.”
He went on to add that Thailand has not only broken refugee law by expelling the Hmong but has also gone against the UN treaty against torture, which Thailand has signed and ratified.
“Under that treaty they are obliged not to send anyone back to a country where they are at risk of torture,” he said.
In an opinion piece published in the Bangkok Post on Jan. 13, the US Ambassador to Thailand, Eric John, said the Thai authorities said they had conducted their own screening process and 800 of the Hmong refugees were identified as having protection concerns and “should not be returned involuntarily.”
However, the names of these people were never handed over to the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNCHR) or any potential resettlement country, John said, and “the lack of transparency during the repatriation process made it impossible to determine if the return was voluntary.
“The US was disappointed at the Thai decision to deport 4,689 Laotian Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos on Dec. 28, 2009, despite clear indications that some in the group required protection,” John said.
One thousand of the refugees are reported to have been allowed to return to their villages and stay with their relatives. However, the remaining returnees are thought to be held in “camps” around Laos, according to eyewitnesses.
According to an undercover FFC researcher who recently made a clandestine trip to one of the camps in Phak Beuk, three thousand are being held there in terrible conditions.
“Our researcher went to the camp yesterday and told me that the people are only receiving small amounts of rice,” Bhou Than told The Irrawaddy.
“They aren’t being given any medicine, no clothes, no shelter, no doctors and he told us that 500 are sick with malaria...they are just living on the ground and being controlled by Lao soldiers with AK47s—we are very concerned by this news.”
According to a report in the Sydney Morning Herald on Jan. 12, reporters approached a camp at Paksan on the Mekong River, where “hundreds of Hmong hilltribes people stood barefoot in the dirt behind three metres of razor wire as loudspeakers ordered them to move away from the gate.”
“Blue tarpaulins blocked much of the view of the camp, but the tops of scores of tents could be seen in close rows. No grass or paved areas could be seen, and there appeared to be no permanent buildings,” the Herald said, adding that the reporters were escorted from the camp and told not to return.
Despite the information leaking out of Laos, the communist regime continues to claim that the refugees are being treated well. When the Lao Deputy Minister of Foreign Affairs Phongsavath Boupha met with ambassadors from the European Union, US and Australia on January 15, he told them the government had provided them with food, clothing and medicines.
“The government's long-term plan was to build a house for each family and allocate land for farming activities,” Phongsavath said, according to the Vientiane Times, a government mouthpiece.
Although the UNHCR continues to be denied access to the returnees, three US congressmen including Rep. Anh “Joseph” Cao of New Orleans visited Pha Lak, a separate camp south of Paksan and reported that the Hmong were being treated well.
Human rights groups have blasted their remarks, however, as being insensitive to the returnees and claimed their trip was staged by the Laos government.
“Their visit was nothing close to human rights monitoring,” said Joe Davy, a Hmong advocate in Chicago, who spoke to The Irrawaddy by phone.
“The Laos government told the refugees what to say before they arrived. There’s no way they would speak out and criticize the government for their living conditions. They’ve already seen how powerless the US is to help them so why would they speak out now and risk their lives?”
Responding on Thursday to the criticisms, which she described as unfounded and unfair, Cao spokeswoman Princella Smith said: “Accusations that Congressman Cao is insensitive to the needs of refugees or is somehow insensitive to victims of government abuse and persecution are not only wrong but absurd.”
Although most refugees came from Huay Nam Khao camp, one group of major concern for the UNHCR consists of 158 returnees (including 87 children) who, until they were sent back, were being held at an immigration detention center in Nong Khai on the border with Laos.
US Ambassador John said the refugees, who were detained for more than three years in the center, had been screened by the UNHCR prior to their detention and determined to have refugee status and were recognized as “Persons of Concern.”
The US was financing the care of the refugees while they were in detention in Thailand, John said, and the US and other countries were prepared to consider appropriate cases for resettlement in third countries.
"All the refugees we interviewed in Nong Khai told us on Dec. 28 that the did not wish to return to Laos, clearly indicating the return was involuntary,” John said.
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