The foreign aid group Doctors Without Borders says it is withdrawing its support from a refugee camp in the Thailand because of military restrictions and coercion. The aid group says the Thai military is using pressure to force the repatriation of ethnic Lao Hmong in the camp who may face persecution if sent back to Laos.
Doctors Without Borders told journalists Wednesday they would no longer cooperate with the Thai military to provide medical care and distribute food to refugees at Huai Nam Khao.
The refugee camp in northern Thailand has since 2005 been home to thousands of ethnic Hmong who fled Laos and depend on the aid.
But, the Paris-based group says in recent months the Thai military has put in place unacceptable restrictions and used coercive tactics to pressure the Hmong to return to Laos.
Gilles Isard is the Thailand head of mission for Doctors Without Borders, also known by its French abbreviation, MSF. He says the military no longer allows them to independently provide medical services and is using arbitrary arrest to intimidate refugees.
"Often the military have requested the assistance of MSF to convince the Hmong to return to Laos," said Isard. "On several occasions they have asked MSF not to distribute food to the refugees in order to add extra pressure on the population. Of course, MSF has always refused, arguing that humanitarian assistance should not be used as a coercive instrument."
Isard says the Thai military restricts refugees' access to their facilities by setting up check-points and locking the gate after hours.
The Thai military plans to repatriate all the Hmong by the end of the year under a system they claim is voluntary but rights groups say is coerced.
Isard says there is evidence supporting claims by Hmong who say they face persecution in Communist Laos.
"After almost four years of presence on the field providing humanitarian assistance to the Hmong displaced population, MSF believe that many of those people have credible fear to return to Laos," he said.
The Hmong supported the United States fight against Communism and say they have since become targets of abuse by authorities in Laos.
Thai and Laos authorities deny the Hmong are mistreated and argue they are economic migrants rather than refugees.
But despite intense lobbying, Thai authorities refuse to allow the United Nation's refugee agency, or any other independent group, to assess their status.
Isard says Doctors Without Borders will remain in the refugee camp for a few more weeks while new aid groups are found to take their place.