Thai military authorities say they will send about 4,000 Hmong living in a Thai refugee camp back to Laos by the end of the year, despite concerns they may face political persecution.

A military spokesman on Wednesday confirmed to VOA that Thailand will repatriate the Hmong within about a week.

They have been living at the Huay Nam Khao camp in Thailand's northern Petchabun province.

Many of the Hmong at the camp fear persecution by Lao authorities if they are sent back and are believed to want political asylum.

Thailand says they will be repatriated on a voluntary basis, but has never allowed the United Nations' refugee agency or any third party to assess their refugee status or monitor their return.

Giuseppe de Vincentis is the U.N. refugee agency's deputy representative for the region.

"The whole process of identifying and processing these cases lacks some transparency so far.  So, UNHCR has always requested, of course, to be given access to these people to ascertain both, of course, to look into their status, as well as to ascertain the element of voluntariness in their return," he said.            

The aid group Doctors Without Borders pulled out of the camp, earlier this year, blaming Thai military pressure to coerce the refugees back to Laos.

Thai authorities deny any pressure.

Many Hmong fought with the United States against communist forces during the Vietnam War and say Lao government has discriminated against their families ever since.

Joua Va Yang says his father fought against the Lao communists. He escaped from the Huai Nam Khao camp, fearing he would be sent back to Laos.

He says he would never return to Laos but he is also wanted by Thai authorities.  He says he will hide with his family, but if the Thai authorities see him they will send him to jail or back to Laos.  He asks that the U.N. help him and his family leave Thailand so they can have a better future.

Panitan Watanayagorn is Thai government spokesman.

"We listen to these complaints quite closely.  We also have our own fact-finding.  And, our fact-finding indicated that people who have been sent back are very happy," said Panitan Watanayagorn.

The Thai and Lao governments agreed they would repatriate the Hmong before the end of 2009

Another group of about 158 Hmong with refugee status are being held at Thailand's Nong Khai detention center.  Refugee activists fear they, too, could be sent back to Laos.

That group has been in custody for more than three years. Despite offers from the United States and other countries to give them asylum, Thailand has refused to let them leave.