Thailand: UNHCR concerned over return of Lao Hmong

Briefing Notes, 27 June 2008

This is a summary of what was said by UNHCR spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis to whom quoted text may be attributed at the press briefing, on 27 June 2008, at the Palais des Nations in Geneva.

UNHCR has written to the Thai government expressing concern over the return of 837 Lao Hmong from Thailand last Sunday, 22 June. The operation came after a mass protest by thousands of Lao Hmong who broke out of a camp in Phetchabun Province run by the Thai Army. The lack of transparency and the absence of any third party to monitor the return operation makes it impossible to verify the voluntary nature of the repatriation.

UNHCR is particularly concerned that a group of eight leaders and their families 18 people in all appear to have been deported against their will Sunday morning without any determination of whether they were in need of international protection. This may have been a breach of the principle of non-refoulement, which means that no refugee or asylum-seeker should be forced to return to a country where he or she could face persecution.

For the remaining 819 who were sent back to Laos on Sunday evening, the repatriation appears to have taken place in conditions that raise doubts about the meaningful exercise of voluntary choice, and without any prior adjudication of asylum claims. We are also afraid that since the return was carried out so precipitously, families may have been separated in the process.

UNHCR, which has never had access to the group of about 8,000 Lao Hmong in Ban Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun Province, has long urged that a proper screening be done to identify which of the group are in need of international protection.

UNHCR stands ready to help the Thai and Lao governments and feels the involvement of UNHCR would be helpful in managing the situation of the Lao Hmong, restoring confidence and guaranteeing the appropriate transparency in the search for humanitarian solutions for the Lao Hmong.

UNHCR also notes that there are international standards for voluntary repatriations, which include counselling for those contemplating return and a voluntary return document that includes a photograph of the person, a statement requesting return to their country and a signature. In addition, the person has a right to change his or her mind at any point. Independent third-party monitoring also contributes to international confidence in the process.




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."

Angelina Jolie revisits Myanmar refugees on World Refugee Day

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

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