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Thailand says Lao Hmong repatriation will go ahead
BANGKOK (Reuters) - Thailand on Friday insisted it would repatriate thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum-seekers to Laos, despite concerns by the United States and United Nations that some could face persecution back home.
The Hmong, currently held in a camp in Huay Nam Khao in Phetchabun province, 300 km (186 miles) north of Bangkok, have sought political asylum in Thailand, saying they will be persecuted by Laos' communist government if they return.
Known as America's "forgotten allies", the Hmong were recruited by the U.S. Central Intelligence Agency to fight alongside U.S. forces during the Vietnam War.
When the communists took power in 1975, the Hmong exodus began. Tens of thousands have since been resettled in the U.S.
Thailand and Laos agreed in March to send back the estimated 4,000 Hmong held in Phetchabun by the end of the year.
Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva on Friday sought to allay fears about their forced repatriation, saying his country would ensure it took place in a transparent way "without chaos and in accordance with human rights principles".
"Authorities in Laos have assured us that those who have been sent back are safe," said Abhisit, who urged Laos to reassure the international community about its resettlement programme.
Colonal Surachet Tanyavej, spokesman of the regional army, said about 3,000 Hmong have been sent back on a voluntary basis in the past few years.
He dismissed reports that the military had sent massive reinforcement into the camp this week to pressure them to leave by the end of the year.
Thailand regards the detained ethnic minority group in Huay Nam Khao as illegal economic migrants and has come under fire for denying the U.N. refugee agency (UNHCR) access to the camp.
UNHCR, diplomats and rights groups believe some of the Hmong could qualify for refugee status if a screening process were allowed to take place.
Thailand fears that by facilitating their resettlement in a third country, it could create a "pull factor" that encourages more illegal migrants.
The U.S. State Department expressed concern on Thursday about reports of forced repatriation, noting that in the past, the Thai government had said many Hmong were in need of protection.
"Forced returns of persons entitled to protection is inconsistent with international practice and Thailand's long history of protection of refugees," acting spokesman Mark Toner said in a statement.
UNHCR said Thailand had "the responsibility and international obligation" to ensure those in need of protection in their native countries were returned "only on a voluntary basis".
European diplomats in Bangkok met Thai Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya this week to express their concerns about the planned deportation, and about the fate of 158 Hmong granted U.N. refugee status and offered resettlement in a third country.
They are currently held at a police immigration centre in Nong khai province, next to the Thai-Lao border, where they have been since late 2006. Abhisit dismissed concerns the group would be sent back.
Deputy Prime Minister Suthep Thaugsuban said on Friday that the Hmong repatriation was a matter between Thailand and Laos and was "no other country's issue".
(Reporting by Ambika Ahuja and Chalathip Thirasoonthrakul; Editing by Martin Petty and Sugita Katyal)
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