Thailand's ejection of Hmong refugees to Laos raises alarms

Sacramento BeeDecember 29, 2009 

Vaming Xiong's cell phone rang all day with calls from members of Sacramento's sprawling Hmong community, seeking news about their family members half a world away.

On Monday, the Thai military loaded more than 4,300 Hmong asylum seekers – residents of one of that country's largest refugee camps – into trucks and sent them home to their native Laos, forcibly repatriating them to a country many of them fear.

And in Sacramento, their relatives worried.

"It's a dark day for the Hmong community," said Xiong, chairman of Sacramento's Hmong American Ad Hoc Committee. "We hope that the Lao government will allow international monitoring of the situation.

"But we have to wait and see, and we have to pray for people's safety. We have to pray they won't be persecuted."

Recruited as American allies in the so-called "secret war" in Laos during the Vietnam era, the Hmong fled Laos by the thousands beginning in the mid-1970s. More than 150,000 Hmong refugees have settled in America – 30,000 of them in the Sacramento area – with another 150,000 finding homes in Canada, Australia and France.

Thousands more have subsisted for decades in Thai holding camps, dreaming of asylum overseas and fearing retribution if they returned to Laos.

"People here are very concerned," said Laura Leonelli, executive director of Sacramento's Southeast Asian Assistance Center. "In Laos, they're very intolerant of the Hmong minority."

Another group of ethnic Hmong – estimated at as many as 8,000 – lives in threadbare conditions in the jungles of Laos, still on the run from the communist government.

Thailand's government said Laos has promised the refugees will be treated well, but the forced repatriation has prompted protests from human rights groups and the U.S. State Department.

"All of us feel the United States should have intervened much earlier," said Xiong. "Now these people are going back to Laos, and there's no accountability, no international monitoring. I hope Laos allows them to have a normal life."

Atari Xiong, who produces Crossings TV, a Hmong cable program, said he was trying to reach refugees who live outside the Thai camp for news about what was happening.

"People are not going to be safe in Laos," he said. "We'll be able to contact them there, but they won't be able to tell us what's happening to them. They'll get in trouble if they tell us the truth."

According to Thai government accounts, 5,000 Thai soldiers armed with shields and batons cleared the holding camp without violence and transported the refugees by bus to Thailand's border with Laos.

The government kept independent observers at a press center miles from the camp, the Associated Press reported.

"It's very emotional for people here who have relatives there," said Vaming Xiong. "They don't know what to do."

His own relatives live outside the camp, he said.

"I have someone who escaped to Thailand, but they're not in the camp," he said. "They're in hiding. They're considered illegal, but at least we know they're safe."

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