Lao Hmong deportation from Thailand put on hold

News Stories, 30 January 2007

© UNHCR/J.Pagonis
A camp which previously housed Lao Hmong in Thailand. UNHCR has said it is relieved after Thailand put on hold the deportation of 153 Lao Hmong refugees.

BANGKOK, Thailand, January 30 (UNHCR) Thailand on Tuesday put the deportation of 153 Lao Hmong refugees on hold after a group of male refugees resisted their forced removal from a detention centre and after repeated offers of resettlement by third countries were taken into account.

"We are relieved the deportation is on hold after some extremely worrying moments today," said UNHCR's Geneva-based Asia bureau director, Janet Lim. "These refugees should not be forcibly returned to Laos under any circumstances and we will continue to work with third countries on their resettlement."

Authorities at north-east Thailand's Nong Khai detention centre had earlier on Tuesday attempted to move the 153 refugees, including a newborn baby, onto buses in preparation for deportation.

Many women and children boarded the buses. However, 54 male refugees barricaded themselves into the Nong Khai immigration detention centre and resisted all attempts to move. UNHCR understands a group of some two dozen children were with them.

In the late afternoon, after a tense stand-off, the refugees on the buses were disembarked. Ambulances, carrying two sick Lao Hmong for deportation, had been waiting near the bridge linking Thailand and the Lao People's Democratic Republic (Laos) across the Mekong River. They later returned to hospital with their patients.

"If this deportation had gone ahead, it would have been the first time Thailand would have refouled [forcibly repatriated] refugees individually recognised under UNHCR's mandate and a major breach of international humanitarian law," said Lim.

UNHCR has made repeated offers to the Thai government to help them find alternative solutions for the Lao Hmong group in detention and has been working closely with third countries to find resettlement solutions.

The group had been rounded up and arrested in Bangkok in mid-November and held since December 7 at the detention centre in Nong Khai, a busy town on the banks of the Mekong.

UNHCR has serious concerns for the safety and security of people forcibly returned to Laos and does not have access to people returned against their will.

The refugee agency is still gravely concerned about the fate of 26 Lao Hmong children separated from their parents who were deported from Thailand to Laos in December 2005. There has been no trace of them since, despite efforts by UNHCR and the Thai government to find out what has happened to them.

The attempted deportation of the refugees on Tuesday, and the forcible return late last week of 16 Lao Hmong asylum seekers who had not been screened to see if they had protection concerns, underlines the tenuous situation of some 7,000 Lao Hmong who have been living in makeshift camps near Huay Nam Khao village in Phetchabun province since about July 2005.

UNHCR does not have access to this mixed group but has consistently advocated with Thailand to put in place a system which would ensure that any individuals among them who have protection concerns are screened in line with international standards. UNHCR is ready to help the Thai authorities in any appropriate way to manage this situation.

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Refugees from Myanmar: Ethnic Karens Seek Shelter

Over 2,000 refugees from Myanmar have crossed the border into Thailand in recent months. Most claim to be fleeing renewed conflict and human rights abuses in Kayin state, Myanmar. The mainly ethnic Karen refugees say their houses and villages have been burned and civilians killed. Many were weak upon arrival, suffering from illnesses such as malaria, after a long, dangerous journey to the camps through heavily mined areas. The refugees have been arriving at government-run camps, mainly in the Mae Hong Son area in northern Thailand.

UNHCR is working with the Thai government and non-governmental organisations to ensure the new arrivals are admitted to the camps and provided with adequate shelter and protection. Shelter has been a major issue as the capacity in many refugee camps has been overwhelmed. In a breakthrough in mid-May, Thai authorities agreed to build proper houses for the new arrivals.

There are currently 140,000 refugees from Myanmar living in nine border camps in Thailand, many of them have been there for up to 20 years.

Refugees from Myanmar: Ethnic Karens Seek Shelter

Angelina Jolie revisits Myanmar refugees on World Refugee Day

UNHCR's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie spent this year's World Refugee Day with Karenni refugees from Myanmar. Some have been in exile in Thailand for 30 years, making this one of the longest-running refugee situations in the world.

On her fourth visit to the refugee camps in Thailand, Jolie met Baw Meh's family, three generations of refugees who have lived in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp since 1996.

The family told Jolie they fled Myanmar's Kayah state thinking they would return home shortly. Eighteen years later, they are still here. Baw Meh, 75, lost her husband last year. He died before he could fulfill his dream of returning home. Some of their family members have been resettled to third countries. Others have chosen to stay. Baw Meh has refused to go, preferring to stay close to her village.

Like many refugees along the border, her family is watching the reform process in Myanmar closely and mulling the prospect of eventual return. "After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward," said Jolie. "This is our chance to get it right, to break the vicious cycle of conflict and displacement once and for all."

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