The U.S. State Department has expressed deep concern about reports that Thailand is preparing to deport more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong from Laos back to that country by the end of the year. The Hmong, who fear persecution by the Laotian government, have been living in a camp in northern Thailand.
The State Department has joined several U.S. Senators and human rights advocates in expressing concern about what officials say could be the imminent deportation of the ethnic Hmong back to Laos.
Long housed at a camp in Thailand's northern Petchabun province, the Hmong have been seeking asylum based on claims they face persecution by Laos because members of the ethnic group fought alongside the United States against communist forces during the Vietnam war.
Thailand has depicted the Hmong as economic migrants but has refused access to them by United Nations officials or any other third party to determine if they are political refugees. A Thai military spokesman said Wednesday they will be repatriated in about a week.
State Department Acting Spokesman Mark Toner said the United States is deeply concerned about reports of the impending action, which he said would be contrary to Thai traditions and international legal principles.
"Forced returns of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with international practice and Thailand's long history of protection of refugees," he said. "Such returns would violate the international principle of 'non-refoulement' and imperil the well-being of many individuals. The United States and others have been working actively with the governments of Thailand and Laos to find a mutually-acceptable resolution in line with international principles."
Toner said the United States has raised concerns with Thailand about the Hmong for two years, most recently during a visit to Bangkok by Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees and Migration Eric Schwartz only a few days ago.
He said U.S. officials are confident acceptable solutions can be found, but said they require that the Thai government refrain from the involuntary return of those who merit protection.
The spokesman said the United States is also concerned about the potential return of 158 ethnic Hmong being held at a Thai detention center who do have U.N. refugee status.
This week, a bipartisan group of nine U.S. Senators sent a letter to Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva cautioning against any early deportation move, and criticizing the lack of transparency in the screening process for the Hmong.
An Amnesty International spokeswoman says the rights group is "appalled" by the prospect of the return of the ethnic Hmong, many of whom she said have valid fears of persecution if they are returned to Laos.
The Washington based group, Refugees International, said expulsion of the Hmong would be a serious violation of international law and a severe blot on Thailand's reputation.
The Laotian government has steadfastly denied the Hmong would face reprisals.