LAOS: UNHCR still seeking access to deported Lao Hmong
Over the years, thousands of Hmong have sought asylum in Thailand, claiming they face persecution by the Lao government for their support of US forces during the Vietnam war
BANGKOK, 19 January 2010 (IRIN) - The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says it still has no access to more than 4,000 Lao Hmong deported from Thailand three weeks ago amid an international furore.
"We're still seeking access to all of the Lao Hmong who were deported in order to observe the arrangements that were made for them to settle in Laos, and also to assist with the resettlement of the 158 who were registered refugees," Kitty McKinsey, UNHCR regional spokeswoman, told IRIN.
The move sparked protests from the US, Australia and international human rights groups when it deported the Hmong back to Laos on 28 December.
Of these, 158 were UNHCR-registered refugees who had been held for more than three years by Thai authorities in a detention centre in Nong Khai in Thailand's east, and had been awaiting resettlement to other countries.
McKinsey said the US, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands had offered to resettle the 158, but efforts had been delayed because the refugees had been unable to obtain exit permits from Thailand.
"The resettlement offers made by the four countries are still open," she said. "Those countries are still actively in touch with the Lao government to find out what happened with the 158, and find out what is happening with the resettlement process, even though the refugees are back in Laos."
Another 4,000 Lao Hmong were deported from a camp run by the Thai army in northern Petchabun province. While UNHCR has never been granted access to them to determine their status, the agency says the Thai government has screened them and found that a number have protection needs.
The US ambassador to Thailand, Eric John, said in a 13 January commentary published in the Bangkok Post
that about 800 people were identified as having protection concerns during the Thai government's screening process, and should not have been returned involuntarily to Laos.
The list of 800 people was never provided to UNHCR or the resettlement countries, said John. "The lack of transparency during the repatriation process made it impossible to determine if the return was voluntary," wrote John.
"At no point were those in need of protection identified to the UN, the United States, or any other resettlement country, even though the US and other resettlement countries were fully prepared to consider for resettlement appropriate cases in need of third-country resettlement."
Over the years, thousands of Hmong have sought asylum in Thailand, claiming they face persecution by the Lao government for their support of US forces during the Vietnam war. The refugees either fought alongside the forces, or had family members who did so.
The Lao government has assured western nations over the safety of the Hmong refugees and will allow them to be visited by diplomats once they settle in, according to a 19 January report in the Vientiane Times
The country's deputy minister of foreign affairs, Phongsavath Boupha, made the assurances in a meeting to discuss the fate of the Hmong with envoys from the European Union, the US and Australia on 15 January, it said.