Friday, May 22, 2009

French Aid Group Stops Work for Hmong Refugees

The Irrawaddy News

BANGKOK — The only aid agency working at a Hmong refugee camp in Thailand said Wednesday it would stop work there because of policies aimed at pressuring members of the ethnic minority to return to Laos, where they could be persecuted.

Medecins Sans Frontieres—the sole aid agency providing assistance to the camp's residents, mostly in the form of medical care and food—says Thailand's policies prevent the group from freely providing humanitarian assistance. The group, also known as Doctors Without Borders, is coordinating with UNICEF to find another nongovernment agency to take over its duties.

Hmong refugees at a Thai detention centre in Nong Khai province near Thai-Laos border. (Photo: AFP)

There are about 5,000 refugees at the camp in northern Thailand from the Hmong minority, whose members fought as US-backed guerrillas in Laos during the Vietnam War. They say that if they return they will be persecuted by the communist government that took power in 1975.

Thai authorities say the Hmong are not legitimate refugees and have entered the country illegally.

"We strongly believe that some people in that camp have credible reason to fear to be returned to Laos," Gilles Isard, the aid group's director in Thailand, said at a news conference in Bangkok. "These people should not be returned to Laos."

The group has called on both governments to halt the Hmong's forced repatriation until an independent third party can review their refugee status claims, a move that has not been allowed so far, Isard said. It has also called for a third party to monitor the repatriation and resettlement of any refugees sent back, he said.

Isard said the Thai army, which runs the Huay Nam Khao camp, "has introduced increasingly restrictive measures with the aim of pressuring the Hmong into dropping their demands for refugee status and returning 'voluntarily' to Laos."

The army has hindered access to the aid group's facilities, including its clinic, and has added checkpoints throughout the camp, intimidating both refugees and workers, he said.

The policies have also put the health refugees at risk, he said, citing the case of a woman who had to be pulled through a barbed wire fence to get to the clinic to give birth. He said another almost died in childbirth because of delays.

Isard said the military has tried several tactics to pressure the refugees to return to their homeland, including asking the group to restrict food handouts and jailing some camp leaders on flimsy pretexts.

"We can no longer work in a camp where the military uses arbitrary imprisonment of influential leaders to pressure refugees into a "voluntary" return to Laos, and forces our patients to pass through military checkpoints to access our medical clinic," Isard said.

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