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Thai troops deport 4,000 Hmong to Laos

Associated Press - December 29, 2009

Jerry Harmer Thai troops have packed more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong into military trucks for a one-way journey to Laos.

It has all but ended the Hmong's three-decade search for asylum following their alliance with the US during the Vietnam War.

Many Hmong, an ethnic minority from Laos' rugged mountains, fought under CIA advisers during Vietnam to back a pro-American Lao government Washington's so-called "secret war" before the communist victory in 1975.

The United States and rights groups have said the Hmong could be in danger if returned to Laos.

The European Union said it was "deeply dismayed" by the forcible deportation and issued a statement that urged Laos to ensure the Hmongs' human rights are protected and international observers are granted "unfettered access" to them.

 The UN Refugee Agency (UNHCR) says Thailand has breached international law by forcing 158 recognised Hmong refugees, mainly children, back to Laos along with the thousands of asylum-seekers.

"We would express our dismay that they have gone ahead with the group of 158 people in Nong Khai who had been recognised as refugees by the UNHCR," the agency's spokeswoman Ariane Rummery said on Tuesday, adding that almost 90 were children.

"The forcible return of refugees to their country of origin is a violation of international customary law. It's a departure from Thailand's longstanding humanitarian practice as a major country of asylum in the region and that's a very grave example internationally," she told AFP.

The group, which had been held in a detention centre in the border town of Nong Khai for three years, was sent back on Monday despite offers of resettlement in third countries because of their fears of persecution in Laos.

Thai army Lieutenant General Niphat Thonglek said the group left "voluntarily" on Monday night along with more than 4000 Hmong asylum-seekers from another camp in northern Phetchabun province.

Thailand said members of the larger group were economic migrants and did not allow the UNHCR to assess if any were political refugees.

Thailand said the 158 Hmong who were screened by the UNHCR and found to be refugees in need of protection must return to Laos before they can take up offers of resettlement in Western countries.

"The Thai government has told UNHCR that it had received assurances from Laos that the group of 158 recognised refugees will be allowed to be resettled in third countries after their return to Laos," said Rummery.

"We certainly hope Thailand remains engaged in the issue to ensure that these can take place."

Niphat said the larger group from Phetchabun had been taken to the central province of Bolikhamsay, while the Hmong from Nong Khai were transported to the Lao capital Vientiane.

"The Lao government pledges to take care of them well while waiting for third countries to contact and take them," he said.

But a Western diplomat in Bangkok told AFP they had "much more ambiguous" signals directly from officials in Laos.

Since the war, more than 300,000 Lao, mostly Hmong, are known to have fled to Thailand and for years were housed in sprawling camps aided by international agencies.

Most were either repatriated to Laos or resettled in third countries, particularly the United States. Smaller numbers found refuge in France, Australia and Canada.

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