Lao Hmong deportation from Thailand put on hold

Thailand put the deportation of 153 Lao Hmong refugees on hold after a group of male refugees resisted their removal from a detention centre and after repeated offers of resettlement by third countries were taken into account.

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.   © UNHCR/J.Pagonis

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.