Thai authorities have halted the deportation of dozens of Lao Hmong after several Western countries agreed to consider their resettlement. As Ron Corben reports from Bangkok, the move follows a standoff between the refugees and Thai police after authorities attempted to take them by bus to Laos.
Thai authorities stepped back late Tuesday from deporting 150 Hmong - 86 of whom are children - after the United States, Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and other countries agreed to consider their applications for resettlement.
A Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman says the Hmong had been returned to an immigration detention center at Nong Khai, 500 kilometers from Bangkok after a tense standoff earlier in the day.
The 150 Hmong, originally from Laos, were arrested last November and had been held at Nong Khai near the Lao border to await deportation.
Early Tuesday Thai police forced the women on to buses to be taken to Laos, but several of the men barricaded themselves in the detention center.
A U.S.-based advocacy group for the Hmong, the Fact-Finding Commission, reported that Thai authorities had dragged women and children from their cells to the buses.
The United Nations High Commission for Refugees, UNHCR, had been negotiating with Thai authorities for several days to allow the resettlement of the Hmong to other countries.
UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis said earlier Tuesday that the agency had made high-level representations to prevent the deportation.
She said, "We've been talking to the Thai authorities and expressed our extreme concern. They have known for quite a long time now that we have been willing to try and help them resolve the situation."
"I don't know why it would be today that they would be sent back particularly when we were on the verge of finding solutions for them," she added.
The UNHCR became concerned last week when Thailand deported 16 Hmong who had not yet been screened by U.N. authorities to assess whether they would qualify for international protection.
Pagonis said there were concerns because the agency would not be able to monitor the refugees' safety after they returned to Laos.
The Thailand representative of the U.S. group Human Rights Watch, Sunai Phasuk, says Thailand would be in breach of international law if the Hmong refugees had been deported.
"Under international law these people are recognized by the UNHCR. Thailand needs to assume that these people will face danger if they are sent back," he said. "If Thailand continues to send those people back to Laos, Thailand will end up violating international law - very basic international law."
But a spokesman for the Lao Foreign Ministry rejected concerns that the Hmong would be persecuted upon their return. He said the matter is an "internal affair of Laos" and the UNHCR has no reason to intervene. He also denied the Hmong merit refugee status.
The Hmong had fought alongside the U.S. forces in Laos during the Vietnam War. When the United States withdrew from Vietnam in 1975, about 300,000 were resettled in the U.S. and thousands more fled to Thailand, or remained in hiding in remote parts of Laos. Many Hmong say they still face discrimination from the Lao government.
But Thailand has taken a tougher stance against new arrivals from Laos in recent years and forced many back into Laos or confined them to camps.