WASHINGTON — A California congressman has joined human rights activists in voicing concern over the treatment of ethnic Hmong deported by Thailand late last year to their native Laos and now being confined in isolated villages inaccessible to international news media and rights groups.
Thailand expelled some 4,500 Hmong, including both political refugees and economic migrants, to Laos in December, after hosting them in refugee camps since 2004.
A U.S. Embassy official in Vientiane, the Lao capital city, and a Thai delegation visited a village in Polikham, Laos, on Feb. 26. But a full week later, neither the U.S. Embassy nor the State Department would give an assessment of the Hmong's situation.
"It is disconcerting that the Laotian government has provided little transparency and granted only limited access to the Hmong populations and refugees," said Rep. Mike Honda, D-Calif., chairman of the Congressional Asian Pacific American Caucus.
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Honda visited another Hmong village in January with two other members of Congress, but he said they didn't find any signs of discrimination or harassment.
Kitty McKinsey, a spokeswoman for the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees in Bangkok, said that Thailand broke the international refugee law principle known as non-refoulement, which prevents asylum countries from forcibly expelling refugees. Among the Hmong sent back were 158 refugees registered with UNHCR. The UNHCR acknowledges that Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Refugee Convention.
The U.N. agency would not discuss the situation in the Hmong camps without having visited them, but it hopes to have access to the returnees by April. Thailand is a major country for asylum in the region, with some 1.3 million refugees and 3.5 million stateless people.
Hundreds of thousands of Hmong now live in southern California, the Sacramento area and the San Joaquin Valley, and in Minnesota. The U.S. is also one of the four countries that promised to shelter 70 of the 158 refugees and is ready to provide supplemental food and basic needs assistance to the returnees.
The U.S. Embassy in Vientiane confirmed that Peter Haymond, the U.S. deputy chief of mission in Laos, visited returnees at Polikham village in Bolikhamxai province, where about 3,000 Hmong are now living. But embassy spokeswoman Shannon Dorsey would give no further details, and a State Department official couldn't verify whether this group includes any of the 158 registered refugees
According to Thai officials who accompanied Haymond, the village has neither electricity nor a proper road connection to the nearest city. Many of the Hmong brought their cell phones along with them from Thailand, but communication with the outside world remains sketchy. There is also an acute need of medical care.
.A leading Hmong rights advocate in the United States says such state-controlled visits are unlikely to uncover any violation of international regulations.
"It's a game," said Chicago-based Joe Davy, who has been advocating for Hmong refugees for the past six years and had worked at U.N. refugee camps in Thailand in the mid-1990s. "The refugees are (in Laos) already, monitors will be present and refugees might have been indoctrinated."
The visit to the Polikham village was a follow-up to the Lao government's promise to give the international community access to the returnees. Dorsey said the U.S. Embassy was "pleased that the Lao government was beginning to follow through its promise." Laos is one of the few communist governments in the world.
But according to Davy, any visit to the refugees will be highly stage-managed, with Laotian government officials and state media present, and is unlikely to portray anything but happy pictures of the refugee situation.
Davy, who has spoken with U.S.-based relatives of some of the returnees, said the Hmong were given only rice — 32 pounds per family for a month — by the government. "So those who do not receive help from relatives in the United States are not doing so well," he said. "They cannot buy vegetables or meat." Health care is another issue the returnees complain about because they don't have access to proper medical treatment, he said.
A relative of a returnee in Polikham told Davy that they were prevented from approaching Haymond during his visit.
Thailand and Laos signed an agreement on the "voluntary" repatriation of the Hmong, but in fact thousands of Thai soldiers were mustered during the repatriation process.
After the Feb. 26 visit, a Thai Embassy official in Vientiane said the Lao government is building houses for each family, a mobile phone station, and a grocery for the villagers to buy food. There is talk of extending electricity lines to the village. The government was also building a new road to the village, which is 33 miles from the nearest town. The current road washes away during the rains.
The Thai official, who couldn't be quoted by name because he was unauthorized to speak for his government, said he didn't find any signs of mistreatment of the villagers. The Lao government might allow another diplomatic visit to the village "once everything is in place," he said.
Neither the U.S. Embassy in Vientiane nor the State Department would offer an assessment of the situation in the villages despite daily requests from McClatchy over the past week. "Talks are continuing with the (Lao) government here to give international community regular access to the returnees," said Dorsey.
Amnesty International said a camp near Paksan housing some of the returnees is surrounded with razor wire and the returnees are not allowed to go out.
The U.S. link with the Hmong goes back to the 1960s, when the CIA recruited Hmong tribesmen in the U.S. war against the Viet Cong and North Vietnam. Many members of the CIA's secret army fled to the United States after the war.
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