The head of the United Nations refugee agency has expressed dismay as Thai authorities began the forced deportation today of thousands of ethnic Hmong back to neighbouring Laos.
I call upon the Thai Government to halt the forced return of the Lao Hmong, some of whom have international protection needs, " said UN High Commissioner for Refugees AntÃ³nio Guterres.
The Thai Government began deporting the first group of an estimated 4,000 Lao Hmong refugees this morning from a camp in Petchabun, central Thailand, to which UNHCR staff has not been granted access.
Over the coming days, Thai authorities plan to expel a second group of 158 Hmong who have been held in detention for three years in Nong Kai, northeastern Thailand, and who have all been identified as refugees by UNHCR.
Last week, Mr. Guterres urged the Government to halt its plans to return the Hmong to Laos, noting that the refoulement, or forced return, would not only endanger the protection of the refugees but set a very grave international example. "
UNHCR said it has long maintained that the process of repatriation should be transparent and that no one with a valid protection claim should be forcibly returned to Laos.
In a news release issued today, UNHCR urged Thailand to halt the planned deportations to allow time for solutions of voluntary return and third country resettlement, respecting the international principle of non-refoulement.
Many Hmong living in the highlands of Laos took part in the conflict that engulfed the country 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.