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Hidden Behind Barbed Wire

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Plight of Hmong refugees held in detention camp in Northern Thailand ignored amid ongoing deportations to Laos.

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Over the past four months, the Thai military has used heightened restrictions and coercive tactics to pressure some 4,700 ethnic Lao Hmong refugees, who claim to have fled violence and persecution in Laos, to renounce their claims for protection and accept a forced return to Laos. These refugees have been confined for the past two years to the Thai military-controlled Huai Nam Khao camp in northern Thailand. Many of these refugees have told international medical humanitarian organization Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), the sole independent nongovernmental organization working in the camp, of fleeing violent attacks and persecution, witnessing the murder of family members, suffering rape, surviving bullet and shrapnel wounds, and enduring malnutrition and disease in Laos.

The Thai military has engaged in coercive tactics such as the use of arbitrary imprisonment of refugee leaders to pressure the camp’s inhabitants to give up their claims to protection or asylum and temporary food distributions cuts. In mid-April 2009, the army began forcing the population to pass through a military check point before entering the MSF medical clinic, thus restricting access to health care services because many people in the camp fear to be arrested at this checkpoint. As a result, the proportion of men seeking medical consultations dropped by 50 percent.

The Thai military’s coercive measures have heightened the anxiety, psychological distress, and fear among the already traumatized camp population. Six refugees have attempted suicide in the past years. Hunger strikes, arson, and self-mutilation have all been employed by refugees out of desperation to avoid a forced return to Laos. Ultimately, the Thai and Lao governments’ refusal to accept any independent, third-party to assess the claims for protection of the refugees has destroyed what little space existed for MSF to continue to provide independent humanitarian assistance to these refugees. As a result, on May 20, 2009, MSF was compelled to end its medical assistance in Huai Nam Khao camp.

Despite more than two years of diplomatic and public communication by MSF, the United Nations, United States, France, and other regional powers have failed to take any concrete steps to ensure the protection of the traumatized and vulnerable refugee population confined to Huai Nam Khao camp. International standards state that repatriation cannot be forced or imposed on individuals fearing for their safety and any repatriation must remain linked to guarantees for safety upon return. For the Hmong refugees, none of these conditions have been met by either the governments of Thailand and Laos.

In March, the Thai government reaffirmed its intention to return all Hmong refugees to Laos before the end of the year. Since December 2008, the number of repatriations has increased to approximately 200 per month, reaching 500 in March, following over a year of heightened pressure on the camp’s inhabitants to agree to return voluntarily to Laos. At its peak, the refugee population numbered some 7,800 people. Last June, an estimated 800 refugees were forced back to Laos after the military rounded up some 5,000 refugees who had engaged in a protest march against the Thai-Lao agreement to deport them back to Laos. MSF staff and mental trauma patients were among those driven over the border and families were separated in the process.

MSF began providing humanitarian aid to this group of refugees in July 2005. During medical and psychosocial consultations, MSF found extreme fear and psychological distress among this population, which has only been exacerbated by the threat of a return to Laos. Refugees have told MSF field staff about recent abuses suffered in Laos, which are consistent with reports by human right organizations1 and independent journalists2 who have visited the areas of Laos (Borikamxai, Xieng Khouang, Xaisomboune, and Vientiane provinces) where many of the Hmong refugees used to live. At least 181 refugees in the camp had been documented as bearing physical scars, such as bullet and shrapnel wounds, from alleged abuses in Laos. The MSF mental health program admitted 286 patients. Of those consulted, a majority of them reported witnessing the death of family members or friends, or experiencing torture and starvation in the mountainous jungles of Laos.

Out of grave concern for their safety, MSF is making a final call to the governments of Thailand and Laos to immediately stop the forced repatriation of these Lao Hmong refugees without independent monitoring and guarantees for their safety.

The Thai government proceeded in December 2007 and January 2008 with a screening process without the participation of any third party and its results have not been communicated to UN High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR). The purpose of this operation was to separate refugees fleeing persecution in Laos from those migrating for economic reasons. Despite repeated requests, UNHCR has not been allowed to access the camp or to monitor the screening process at any point over the last three years.3

The repatriation process agreed upon by Thailand and Laos seriously threatens the legal and fundamental right of non-refoulement—whereby people fleeing persecution must not be sent back to countries where their lives or liberty would be threatened.4

The government in Laos has continually prevented nongovernmental organizations and international organizations from monitoring and assessing the safety of Lao Hmong returnees. Since December 2005, more than 1,500 Hmong have been forcibly returned to Laos. Some of these individuals have been held in arbitrary detention, and there have been credible reports of torture.5

Because of the credible fear among Hmong refugees in the Huai Nam Khao camp, MSF is issuing a final appeal and urgently calling upon the governments of Thailand and Laos:

  • To stop the forced repatriation of the Hmong refugees in Huai Nam Khao and allow an independent, third party to review the refugee status determinations.
  • To allow an independent, third party to assess the areas of return and the adequacy of assistance offered, monitor all repatriations, verify the voluntary nature of returns, and continued safety of returnees.

Furthermore, MSF requests any States that have already resettled Hmong, or could be ready to do so, to offer them an alternative in accordance with international law in terms of protection of people fleeing persecution.