UNHCR seeking access to returned Lao Hmong

The UN refugee agency is seeking access to Lao Hmong who were forcibly returned to Laos from Thailand earlier this week.

Ethnic Hmong stand inside a truck at the Ban Huay Nam Khao camp in Thailand's Phetchabun province before being forcibly repatriated to Laos.  © REUTERS/Sukree Sukplang

GENEVA, December 29 (UNHCR) - The United Nations refugee agency on Tuesday formally approached the government of Laos seeking access to Lao Hmong deported from Thailand a day earlier. Among those sent back were people recognized by UNHCR as being in need of international protection.

UNHCR also called on the government of Thailand to provide details of assurances provided to it by Laos, under a bilateral agreement between the two governments, concerning the treatment of the returned Hmong.

The refugee agency has asked to be informed of steps taken by Thailand to ensure that commitments made under this framework are effectively honoured.

Thailand has a long history as a country of asylum in the South-east Asian region. However, on Monday it deported some 4,000 Lao Hmong from two camps, one in the northern province of Petchabun and another in Nong Khai, which is located across the Mekong River from Laos in the country's north-east.

UNHCR was given no access to people in the first camp, while those in Nong Khai were all recognized refugees who had been in detention for almost three years. UNHCR has no formal presence in Laos.

The forced return on Monday of the Lao Hmong took place despite UNHCR's urging of the Thai government to halt its plans for their deportation. In a statement last Thursday, UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres warned that by doing so Thailand risked setting "a grave international example."

A fundamental principle in international customary law is that refugees and people awaiting asylum applications should not be returned to their countries of origin except on a strictly voluntary basis.