Monday, May 05, 2008

Immigration around the globe: Thailand. Human rights and exert pressure on the Lao government to end human rights violations committed against Hmong living in the jungle.

Over the years Thailand has been providing temporary protection to hundreds of thousands of people who have fled persecution and conflict in neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.

For decades, Thailand has served as the main hosting country in the region for Lao Hmong asylum-seekers. The total number of Lao Hmong seeking international protection in Thailand is not clear, but some 7,000 people claiming to have fled Laos due to a well-founded fear of being persecuted currently reside in an informal refugee settlement in Huay Nam Khao, in northern Phetchabun province. Much smaller numbers live in other places across the country, notably in the border areas and the greater Bangkok region.

The vast majority of Lao Hmong in Thailand have not had access to a determination process to assess their refugee claims, as so far, UNHCR has not had access to the refugee camp in Huay Nam Khao. In consequence, it is not known how many of these are in need of international protection. As long as the status of these people is unknown, any attempts to return them to Laos places the Thai government at risk of breaching its obligations under international law.

In the past 15 months at least around 100 individuals have been unlawfully deported back to Laos. On three occasions Lao Hmong asylum-seekers were rounded up and held either at police stations or in Immigration Detention Centres for some time inside Thailand before being handed over to authorities in Laos.

Amnesty International has repeatedly called on the Thai authorities not to forcibly return people who would be at risk of severe human rights violations, including torture, in keeping with Thailand's obligations under inter¬national law, inclu¬ding under the ICCPR, to which Thailand is a state party.(49) The Human Rights Committee, the body entrusted under the Covenant with monito¬ring its applica¬tion by states parties, has main¬tained that Article 7 of the Covenant provides an absolute prohibition on return to torture or other ill-treatment. In its General Comment on Article 7, the HRC stated the following:

In the view of the Committee, States parties must not expose individuals to the danger of torture or cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment upon return to another country by way of their extradition, expulsion or refoulement.(50)

Non-refoulement is a principle of customary international law which is binding on all states regardless of whether or not they have ratified a relevant treaty, such as 1951 Refugee Convention and its 1967 Protocol.

At the time of writing, around 350 Lao Hmong men, women and children are held in Thai detention and face the risk of imminent deportation. At least 153 of them are recognized refugees under UNHCR's mandate, but the majority of them have not had access to a screening process to have their protection needs ascertained.

One attempt has already been made at deporting the recognised refugees, in clear breach of international law:

In the morning of 30 January 2007 following a bilateral agreement between Thailand and Laos reached some six weeks earlier, authorities attempted to deport 153 refugees. Immigration officials dragged women and girls crying and screaming out of their cell in the Immigration Detention Centre in the north-eastern town of Nong Khai where they had been held since 17 November. They were then loaded onto buses that drove them to the Lao border. Two of the women were eight months pregnant and one had a baby who had been born weeks earlier in the detention centre.

Two seriously sick men were also put into vehicles, after having been taken from their hospital beds where one had been receiving care for a serious liver condition and another for a bullet wound to the face.

The women and sick men were kept in the buses at the border awaiting the men, who had barricaded themselves in the male cell in an attempt to evade deportation. Police tried to saw through the bars to gain access to the cell. Witnesses also reported that police released a gas-like substance, possibly tear gas, three times, despite the fact that 20 children, all boys, were in the cell.

By afternoon, the deportation attempt was halted, a decision that Amnesty International welcomed. The women, girls and sick men were later taken back to the immigration detention centre at Nong Khai. Thai authorities said they would not deport the refugees against their will, but instead pledged to agree to them being resettled in third countries.

Meanwhile, Lao government spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy blamed the Thai government for having been ill-prepared ahead of the deportation and urged for the deportation to go ahead:

"The Lao side requests Thailand continue to ready the group for repatriation and ensure the security of Lao officials who will accompany the group." (51)

Thai authorities have yet to confirm that the deportation of these refugees, which with a new-born now number 154, has been permanently halted. Amnesty International remains concerned about their safety. The organisation is also concerned about the possible risk of forcible return of many other Lao Hmong people who may also be in need of international protection.


Amnesty International makes the following recommendations:

To the Lao authorities

Immediately stop all armed attacks against Hmong people living in the jungle;

Ensure that the security forces immediately end the use of arbitrary detention, rape and torture or other cruel, inhuman or degrading treatment or punishment of detainees, and in particular the unlawful detention and ill-treatment of children;

Ensure prompt, independent and impartial investigation of all allegations of attacks by the security forces on Hmong living in jungle encampments or other unlawful use of force against them, including killings, torture or other ill-treatment, rape and other sexual abuse, and bring the perpetrators to justice in proceedings which meet international standards of fairness and without the imposition of the death penalty;

Enable the people living in jungle encampments to realise their basic economic, social and cultural rights, in particular their right to an adequate standard of living, including access to food, water, shelter, and essential health care, including through permitting access by international humanitarian organisations to the areas of concern;

Allow and assist those Hmong who want to reintegrate into mainstream society and have not committed any internationally recognizably criminal offence to do so, while ensuring respect for their human rights during this process, including the right to life, liberty and security of person, an adequate standard of living, and liberty of movement and freedom to choose their place of residence. Any resettlement should be with the free and informed consent of those affected who should be involved in the planning and management of their relocation;

Allow international monitoring, including by UN human rights bodies and experts, of such reintegration.

To the Thai authorities

Ensure that under no circumstances persons are returned to Laos if they face a risk of serious human rights violations, including violations of the right to life, torture or other ill-treatment;

Ensure that Lao Hmong asylum seekers inside Thailand, including approximately 7,000 Lao Hmong at the camp in Huay Nam Khao, are provided access to a fair determination process in order for their protection claims to be assessed either by UNHCR or national bodies, in keeping with international human rights law and international refugee law;

Ensure that those who are in need of international protection inside Thailand are provided with such protection and that all attempts at finding durable solutions, including local integration and resettlement are explored.

To UN agencies and the international community

Whenever possible open up dialogue with the Lao authorities about human rights and exert pressure on the Lao government to end human rights violations committed against Hmong living in the jungle;

Call on the Lao government to accept independent monitoring of the concerned areas inside the Lao jungles and areas where groups from the jungle have resettled so as to ascertain their needs and assure their well-being;

Those states in a position to do so make clear to the Lao government their willingness to provide international assistance to support the authorities in meeting its minimum core obligations with regard to ensuring the economic, social and cultural rights of the groups in the jungle as well as of those who reintegrate in to the mainstream

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