Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration
December 24, 2009

Dear Friends and Colleagues:

In the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration, our sense of celebration at this time of year is tempered by the possibility of the forced return of thousands of Lao-Hmong refugees from Thailand to Laos.

I just returned from a very short-notice trip to Thailand, where I visited the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Center near the Thai-Lao border and met with a range of senior Thai officials. Our goal, again, is to forestall the forcible return to Laos of some 4500 Lao Hmong who have been in Thailand for varying periods – most for at least several years. Our principal concern is that many of these people merit protection from return, and forcing them back threatens their well-being and undermines basic protection principles reflected in the Refugee Convention and Protocol.

Recent reports suggest that returns may begin any time – hence the urgency – and the timing of my trip.

There are several Hmong groups about which we are concerned. Each situation is a little different, but the simple "ask" is the same for all: do not forcibly return individuals who may merit protection from return. A small percentage of this group has already been screened and has been deemed to merit protection as refugees by the UN High Commissioner for Refugees. The majority – more than 4,000 – were not permitted access to UNHCR, but the Thai military reportedly coordinated its own screening process for this group, and we have been told the Thai authorities "screened in" nearly 600 of this group. We have asked the Thai authorities for more details on the process, so we could make suggestions about possible review of decisions and so that we might share information about cases of concern.

Date: 12/24/2009 Description: Huay Nam Khao Camp in Petchabun province, Thailand. © State Dept ImageDuring my meetings in Thailand, Thai officials emphasized that they had received assurances from the Government of Laos that returnees would not be persecuted upon return. To be sure, we appreciate those assurances, and we have encouraged the Government of Laos to permit monitoring of the process of return.

But however welcome, that is beside the point. If the Thai involuntarily return Hmong who merit protection, this would be another very damaging blow to the space for protection in Southeast Asia, coming on the heels of Cambodia’s forcible repatriation of Uighurs to the PRC without a proper refugee status determination.

The very sad part is that this is avoidable. We have discussed with the Thai a range of options that would address their irregular migration concerns while preserving protection. For one thing, the U.S. and other resettlement countries are prepared to resettle all those are deemed to merit protection. Moreover, we don't deny the right of governments to return non-refugees. But forcing back people who merit protection cannot be acceptable.

Even at this late hour on December 24, we continue to discuss these issues with the Government of Thailand, and we are working for a solution that addresses these critical concerns.

We’re not there yet, but we will persevere, emboldened by the spirit that informs this time of the year.

Best wishes for the holidays.
Eric Schwartz
Assistant Secretary of State
Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration