The government of Thailand announced that it will forcibly repatriate all remaining Lao Hmong refugees from Thailand by the end of 2009.

These repatriations are pursuant to a joint Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement requiring Thailand to return all Hmong to Laos. In accordance with this agreement, the Thai government deported approximately 3,000 Hmong refugees in 2008. Currently, approximately 4,000 refugees still live in the military-controlled Huai Nam Khao camp in Thailand’s Petchabun Province. While the Thai government claims that most of these repatriations are voluntary, they come without independent observation and are often the result of extreme coercion by the military.

Conditions in the Huai Nam Khao camp are stark, and the Thai government severely limits access by outsiders. Médecins Sans Frontièrs (MSF) was the only organization allowed inside the camp, but according to MSF, “restrictions and coercive tactics imposed by the Thai military authorities” forced the organization to cease operations. Despite repeated requests, the Thai government has refused access to the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The Huai Nam Khao camp is crowded and unsanitary. Rats are common, and there is a high risk of diarrhea and cholera epidemics. MSF also reports a “high level of psychological distress” among refugees in the camp, including cases of post-traumatic stress disorder and anxiety-related depressive disorders. These mental health issues are caused in part by a fear of returning to Laos. Many Hmong, who were trained by and fought with the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency during the Vietnam War, are now targeted and severely persecuted by the Communist Lao government. Consequently, many Hmong have reported they would rather die than return to Laos. In the past, refugees in the Huai Nam Khao camp have resorted to arson, hunger strikes, and suicide attempts in an effort to stop their repatriation and garner attention from the outside world.

Thai officials claim that the Lao Hmong are economic migrants and not refugees protected by international law. Hmong refugees, however, tell of being persecuted and hunted by the Lao government and military. Lao government officials reportedly indefinitely detain and abuse some repatriated Hmong. For example, upon returning to their families at the refugee camp in Thailand, twelve girls recounted to MSF staff their “repeated beatings, rapes and other abuses during their detention in Laos.” To avoid capture, many Hmong in Laos live in the jungle, hiding from the government and the military. They are isolated from the rest of the world and spend much of their days foraging for food in the jungle, making them more susceptible to attack by soldiers. One young Hmong refugee in Thailand described her experience to MSF: “Laotian soldiers attack us regularly, at least four or five times a year . . . Generally, the soldiers systematically kill the men and capture the women.”

Thailand’s treatment of refugees violates norms of international humanitarian law. Thailand is not a signatory to the 1951 Convention relating to the Status of Refugees and has no domestic refugee law or provisions for asylum. Even though the Thai government is not violating domestic law in repatriating these refugees, forcing refugees to return to their country of origin unwillingly violates the international common law principle of non-refoulment. Non-refoulment protects people from being forcibly returned to a country where their lives or freedom would be threatened. Many international humanitarian organizations, governments, and the United Nations have called for Thailand to improve its treatment of refugees and to stop the planned repatriation. Despite these pressures, the Thai government insists on going forward.