The United Nations refugee chief today called on the Thai Government not to deport around 4,000 ethnic Hmong to neighbouring Laos.
AntÃ³nio Guterres, UN High Commissioner for Refugees, said a halt to the planned expulsions is needed to explore solutions of voluntary returns to Laos or resettlement in a third country.
The Thai Government has said it plans to deport the Hmong " including at least 150 recognized refugees " before the end of the month, in line with a bilateral agreement with Laos.
But Mr. Guterres stressed the need to uphold the international law principle of non-refoulement, which means refugees and asylum-seekers cannot be forcibly returned to countries or areas where they could face persecution.
In accordance with international law, Thailand has the responsibility and international obligation to ensure that any return of recognized refugees or other persons in needs of international protection to their country of origin is undertaken on a strictly voluntary basis, " he said.
To proceed otherwise would not only endanger the protection of the refugees but set a very grave international example. "
Many Hmong living in the highlands of Laos took part in the conflict that engulfed their homeland in the 1960s and 1970s. When the Pathet Lao came to power in 1975, tens of thousands of Hmong fled to Thailand in search of asylum, while others were resettled in Western countries such as the United States.
Mr. Guterres noted that the estimated 4,000 Hmong who would be deported include 158 recognized refugees currently held in detention in Nong Kai in north-eastern Thailand, and a larger group being held at a camp in Petchabun without access to UNHCR staff.