Forced repatriation of ethnic Hmong raises state senator's ire

mee moua wikimedia.jpg
Photo: Calebrw/Wikimedia Commons
News of the forced repatriation of 4,000 ethnic Hmong from Thailand to their native Laos on Monday sent shockwaves throughout the Hmong community and prompted a stern, last-minute denouncement from Minnesota state Sen. Mee Moua, who spent three years of her childhood in a similar camp before moving to the U.S. with her parents.

"International law could not be clearer that the involuntary return of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with precedents and international agreements established in the wake of World War II," she said in a statement. "This long-established principle states that refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to countries where they could face persecution and death."

DFLer Moua, of St. Paul, was first elected to the state Senate in 2002, and is the highest-ranking elected official of Hmong background in the United States. She told Minneapolis-St. Paul magazine that her father was a medic in the Vietnam War, and fled with her family to a refugee camp in Thailand when she was five years old. In 1978 her family, along with other Hmong refugees, moved to the United States. In St. Paul, she's part of one of the largest concentrations of Hmong Americans in the country.

Here's more on the refugees from the New York Times:

Members of a mountain tribe that aided the United States in its secret war in Laos, the asylum seekers have said they fear retribution by the Laotian government, which continues to battle a ragged insurgency of several hundred Hmong fighters. ... The remote Hmong encampment in Phetchabun Province, about 200 miles north of Bangkok, is a remnant of an Indochinese refugee population that once numbered 1.5 million. That included boat people from Vietnam, survivors of the brutal Khmer Rouge government in Cambodia and hundreds of thousands of Hmong who crossed the Mekong River from Laos.

Thailand says it's time for the refugees to go home. Observers fear that, once the Hmong are resettled in Laos, they will face persecution. The U.S. State Department opposed the deportation. The United Nations said it was a violation of international law. And NGOs such as Amnesty International are worried about the potential for a humanitarian disaster.

A National Public Radio reporter on the scene Monday described the background and conditions of the camp. From the transcript:

WERTHEIMER: You have been in some of these camps, haven't you, in the past? Can you tell us something about what they're like?

XAYKAOTHAO: Yes. Unfortunately, Ban Huay Nam Khao has been described as worse than previous Thai refugee camps. This is a fenced-in makeshift community on a mountain in Phetchabun Province with rows of homes, essentially simply built houses with straw used as roofs. People live on dirt floors. Food distribution is difficult because the Thai authorities have refused to allow food distribution by U.N. agencies and local groups in Thailand.

Here's the full text of Moua's statement:

I am deeply concerned about the reports that the Thai government has begun deportation of over 4,000 Lao Hmong refugees from Huay Nam Khao Camp in Petchabun Province, Thailand back to Laos. This is taking place despite the fact that both the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai government have determined that these refugees are in need of protection from persecution from their homeland of Laos.

The Thai military has deployed 5,000 armed soldiers to Huay Nam Khao Camp, which in recent days has been arbitrarily imprisoning individuals and cutting off all forms of communications and medical relief. The fact that reporters, as well as human rights organizations, have been barred from the camp makes it increasingly difficult to verify the current activities of the Thai military. The bilateral agreement between the Thai military and the government of Laos to forcibly deport these families back to Laos in spite of concerns expressed by the international community, as well as multiple human rights organizations, is not in alliance with the good spirit of international human rights.

International law could not be clearer that the involuntary return of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with precedents and international agreements established in the wake of World War II. This long-established principle states that refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to countries where they could face persecution and death. The Thai government must honor international law and immediately desist this deportation.

There are a number of Minnesotans who are concerned for the safety of their family members in Thailand. I ask the U.S. State Department to hold the Lao government accountable for their guarantee of the refugees' safety. I urge the Lao government to allow the United Nations and other humanitarian organizations access to these families to ensure that they are safe and have access to food, shelter, and medical attention.

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