On 28 and 29 December 2009, the Thai military forcibly returned to Laos, in breach of international law, around 4 500 Lao Hmong, including 158 recognized refugees. Since 2005, this type of expulsion has led to enforced disappearances, torture and arbitrary detention. The Lao government has consistently denied this but has forbidden independent observers to investigate the allegations.
The Hmong are an ethnic group which came from China in the 19th century and numbered around 300 000 in the mountains of Laos when the Lao People’s Democratic Republic was established in 1975. At least a third of them reportedly fled the country at that time, mostly to the USA, which the Hmong had supported during the Vietnam War. The others, who retreated into the jungle to escape the Lao army, survive to this day in hiding in appalling conditions.
The around 5 000 Lao Hmong who were living in a camp in the province of Phetchabun in Thailand, had fled persecution in their country in 2004. Most of them never had the opportunity to apply for asylum. The Thai army forcibly returned them on the basis of an agreement between the Thai and Lao governments, which had given assurances that they would be resettled in third countries once they had transited through Laos. However, on 10 January, a spokesperson for the Lao government stated that ’"all of the Hmong decided to live in their homeland forever" and no longer wished to resettle abroad. At the same time the government is refusing all requests to give UN monitors access to the refugees, to assess their wellbeing and ensure that their wishes are respected.
The 158 refugees forcibly returned to Laos, more than half of whom are children, had been arbitrarily detained in Thailand for over three years. Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the United States had offered to accept them for resettlement, but the Lao authorities intervened with the Thai authorities to prevent this happening.
The whereabouts of the majority of those forcibly returned in December is not known. However, hundreds of them have been seen at a military camp to the north of the town of Paksan, around 20 km from the capital Vientiane. These people, mainly women and children, were not free to come and go from the facility, which was fenced in with razor wire.