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UN agency relieved that Thailand stops deportation of Lao Hmong; says action is illegal

UN agency relieved that Thailand stops deportation of Lao Hmong; says action is illegal

Camp that previously housed Lao Hmong
The United Nations refugee agency today expressed relief that Thai authorities have delayed the deportation of scores of Lao Hmong refugees to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic after a group barricaded themselves in the centre where they were being detained, and warned that any forcible deportation would be a “major breach of international law.”

“We are relieved the deportation is on hold after some extremely worrying moments today,” said the UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Geneva-based Asia bureau director, Janet Lim. “These refugees should not be forcibly returned to Laos under any circumstances and we will continue to work with third countries on their resettlement.”

“If this deportation had gone ahead, it would have been the first time Thailand would have refouled [forcibly repatriated] refugees individually recognised under UNHCR’s mandate and a major breach of international humanitarian law.”

Authorities at north-east Thailand’s Nong Khai detention centre had earlier on Tuesday attempted to move the 153 refugees, including a newborn baby, onto buses in preparation for deportation. Many women and children boarded the buses, however 54 male refugees barricaded themselves into the immigration detention centre and resisted all attempts to move. UNHCR understands a group of some two dozen children were with them.

The agency has made repeated offers to the Thai Government to help find alternative solutions for the Lao Hmong group in detention and has been working closely with third countries to find resettlement solutions.

Today’s attempted deportation comes just a few days after Thai authorities deported 16 Lao Hmong to the Lao People’s Democratic Republic without screening them to see if they needed international protection, a move which sparked concern at UNHCR.

“We have serious concerns for the safety and security of those being deported to Laos,” agency spokesperson Jennifer Pagonis said at a press briefing in Geneva on Tuesday. “UNHCR does not have access inside Laos to people returned against their will.”

UNHCR is also gravely concerned about the fate of 26 Lao Hmong children – separated from their parents – who were deported from Thailand to Laos in December 2005. There has been no trace of them since, despite efforts by the agency and the Thai Government to find out what has happened.

These moves by Thai authorities underline the tenuous situation of some 7,000 Lao Hmong who have been living in makeshift camps near Huay Nam Khao village in Phetchabun province since about July 2005. UNHCR does not have access to this mixed group but has consistently advocated with Thailand to put in place a system that would ensure that any individuals among them who have protection concerns are screened in line with international standards. UNHCR is ready to help the Thai authorities in any appropriate way to manage this situation.

In a separate development in Malaysia, UNHCR said on Tuesday it hopes authorities will continue to uphold their humanitarian commitment to refugees, after a group of Myanmar nationals were arrested despite holding agency documents.

“We are concerned that over the weekend, as part of a general crackdown on undocumented migrants, some 45 Myanmar nationals holding UNHCR documents were arrested near the administrative capital of Putrajaya, and then detained,” said Ms. Pagonis, adding such arrests seem to be part of a trend. “We are now working with the authorities on their release.”

She also pointed to “a new development where persons carrying UNHCR cards have also been arrested during these immigration raids.” In December, 90 UNHCR card holders were arrested, and so far this month an additional 70 have been arrested. “We hope this recent trend will quickly be reversed,” she added.

There are some 46,000 persons of concern registered with UNHCR in Malaysia including 15,000 from the Indonesian Province of Aceh, 12,000 Rohingyas from the Northern Rakhine State of Myanmar, 16,000 other ethnic minorities from Myanmar, such as the Chins and Myanmar Muslims and the remaining numbers from various other countries.