Hmong Refugees in Thailand: A Population in Danger

More than 7,000 Hmong refugees at the Huai Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun, Thailand, are in danger of being returned to Laos, where they fear political persecution for cooperating with the United States government during the US-Vietnam War. To this day, the Hmong continue to hide in the remote jungles of Laos, and thousands languish in squalid camps where conditions are crowded and epidemics are a constant threat. The Thai government is now deporting Hmong refugees upon entry to the country—more than 160 Hmong were deported back to Laos earlier this month. Emmanuel Drouhin, Doctors Without Borders/Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF) program manager for Thailand, provides an update on an increasingly precarious situation.

Why are the Hmong refugees at the Huai Nam Khao camp bordering Laos a population in danger?

Most of the refugees now in the camp came from the forest of Laos, where they fled and hid from the government of Laos which in the past has captured them, sent them to jail, or sometimes even killed them. The Hmong cooperated with the American government during the Vietnam War. The Hmong fear for their lives. So for us, this is a population in danger.

If they face political persecution upon their return to Laos, why are they being deported and/or immediately returned?

The Thai government does not recognize refugee status. Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol. However, legal experts believe that under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of "non-refoulement"—not to return anyone to a country where his or her life or freedom is at risk. The Thai government considers the Hmong to be economic migrants rather than refugees accorded protection under international law. The government has agreed to return all newly arrived, Hmong people to Laos.

What do you know about the population in the camp?

A majority of this population came from the forest of Laos. I was at the Huai Nam Khao camp in February and I was shocked. The refugees I spoke to described horrible living conditions. They talked of hiding in the forest, enduring starvation, and fearing persecution. They had no access to medical care. They are frightened because they don't know what will happen tomorrow. They are in Thailand, their lives are safe, and they accept their current situation. They're doing whatever they can to stay. They know that if the Thai army sends them back to Laos, their life is finished.

What were the conditions like at the camp?

The conditions were not good at all. The housing was bad, it was crowded and people were eating near latrines. Each person only had a few square meters of space. The MSF team told me that they killed 30 or 40 rats per day. You had a huge risk of diarrhea and cholera epidemics. We discovered 10 cases of tuberculosis and one case of multidrug-resistant tuberculosis.

You are moving the existing camp to another site to reduce the risk of epidemics. What is your concern about moving these people?

The Thai military will be checking to see that everyone from the existing camp is an actual refugee, and not an illegal immigrant who was already living with family in Thailand. For sure there are probably some people who did not come from the forest, but the majority of people are terrified to go back to Laos, so we cannot accept that they are kicked out.

So for MSF, the challenge now is to make sure that during the transfer to the new camp, the Thai government does not separate families or deport some people with criteria defined by the Thai army and not by the international law or UNHCR.

General Vang Pao, the most recognized leader of the Hmong people in the United States, was recently arrested for conspiring to overthrow the government of Laos. What effect has his arrest had on the Hmong refugees in Thailand?

The Lao and Thai governments decided to solve this problem between themselves without consultation with the international community. I think the Thai government has taken this "general story" as an opportunity to say these people should be deported from Thailand because they could pose a security threat. They are saying we don't want them to be trafficking weapons, spying, and posing a security threat to this region.

What has been the international response?

There is no political will to do anything. It's too politically touchy. We are asking other NGOs to come and be present. People are starting to listen, but it's not enough. United Nations agencies, representatives of the European Union embassies and the Thai government have made efforts in recent months, but we believe that discussions on the problem of the Hmong in Thailand must continue and be stepped up.

What are MSF's requests?

Stop the expulsions. We say we have no problem working in the camp with you, but we cannot accept the deportation of children, the deportation of newcomers who have spent weeks in the forest trying to cross the border. We are pushing the international community to take a clear position on the camp and the Hmong population. Thai authorities should accept these refugees and provide asylum to them in Thailand. The Hmong fear for their lives if they are forced to go back to Laos.