A leading human rights group has accused Thailand of intimidating and forcibly deporting ethnic Hmong to neighboring Laos after they escaped from a refugee camp last month.  Ron Corben reports from VOA's Bangkok bureau.

In a statement Saturday, international rights group Human Rights Watch said it feared for 1,300 refugees who left Huay Nam Khao camp, in the country's northern Petchabun province, for a mass protest.

Some 5,000 ethnic Hmong left the refugee camp on June 20 after a year in detention to highlight their plight with a march to Bangkok, some 350 kilometers away.

Thai soldiers returned 800 protesters to Laos and thousands returned to the camp, but 1,300 refugees are still missing, according to aid agency Doctors Without Borders.

Human Rights Watch accused Thai authorities of inciting fear and uncertainty in an effort to pressure the Hmong to give up their refugee status in Thailand or resettle to other countries.

Human Rights Watch and Doctors without Borders, which has access to the camp, called for Thai authorities to halt the use of intimidation and forced deportations.

The United Nations High Commission for Refugees (UNHCR) said it has written to the Thai Government saying it feared the Hmong face persecution upon their return to Laos. The Thai military claims all repatriations are voluntary.
UNHCR spokeswoman Jennifer Pagonis, called for more transparency in the repatriation process.

"The lack of transparency and the absence of any third party to monitor the return operation makes it impossible to verify the voluntary nature of their repatriation," she said.

But the Thai Foreign Minister, Noppadom Pattama, told reporters the Thai government stood by its procedures in the screening of the Lao Hmong refugees.

"Regarding Hmong, Laotian Hmong, we will not engage in any forced repatriation," he said.  "Regarding our screening process, to screen those whether they are genuine refugee or economic refugee.  Whatever are going to do we will take humanitarian consideration very, very seriously."

Tensions in the camp have risen in recent months amid protests by Hmong over their status and reported on-going threats against the refugees by Thai authorities.

In late May a fire destroyed 60 percent of the camp's housing after a weeklong demonstration calling for the United Nations to intervene to provide refugee protection for the Hmong.

During the Vietnam War in the 1960s and 1970s, the Hmong fought alongside United States forces.  But after the war was over in 1975, many were forced to flee into the jungles, with thousands crossing the border into neighboring Thailand.

Thousands have travelled to the United States, Australia, France, French Guiana and Canada. Thailand and Laos have both said the Hmong are economic migrants using Thailand as a stepping point to seek refugee status.