Dear Friends and Colleagues:
This is the second of two notes on my recent trip to Thailand and Laos. In the previous letter, I discussed the Thailand portion of the trip and issues relating to Burmese in Thailand. This note concerns my visit to Laos.
I was in the country between June 13th and 16th, to focus on the situation of some 4,500 Lao Hmong asylum-seekers who were involuntarily returned to Laos from Thailand in December 2009 over strong U.S. objections. According to Thai authorities, this group had been screened by Thai officials, and many hundreds had apparently been deemed by Thai authorities to merit protection. The returnees also included 158 persons who had been designated by UNHCR to be Persons of Concern, deserving of protection. This is the so-called “Nong Khai group,” so named because they spent three years at the Nong Khai immigration detention center in Thailand before being deported.
View of Phonekham Development Village, home to approximately 3,500 Lao Hmong returnees. In the foreground is Pak Beuak Village, the closest of the villages in the area pre-dating Phonekham’s establishment in December 2009. Phonekham Village is in the background.
Photo by Hoa Tran, PRM Program Officer, Borikhamxai Province, Laos. June 14, 2010.
Our deep interest in this population stems from the very difficult circumstances surrounding their return in December and concerns about their well-being and protection, as well as from the ties between the returnees and their friends and relatives in the United States. During my visit, I sought to express the continuing interest of the United States in the situation of the returnees, to encourage regular access to returnees by international humanitarian organizations, and to persuade the authorities to permit Lao Hmong who have secured resettlement offers overseas to emigrate. In the company of Lao Brigadier General Bouasieng Champaphanh and several other Lao officials, I visited the Phonekham Development Village, where the majority of those who had been returned in December are now living. The visit was a short one, and while I did not have the chance to interact freely with residents, I did tell them we were very interested in and concerned about their well-being. Although conditions in the village are very basic, I was encouraged to see that electricity had reached the village and construction had begun on at least one of what I was told will be nine schools, and a 10-bed medical facility.
During my visit to Phonekham and over the course of my visit in Laos, I also heard from village residents, local officials and others about the ability of people in the village to speak by cell phone to their relatives overseas and to travel from the village, and about the availability of identity documents – which are important to accessing a range of benefits in Laos. Village residents apparently can communicate by cell phone with relatives overseas, though one report we received (but have not verified) suggests that authorities have asked village residents to register cell phone numbers. In addition, we were told that villagers may travel, but had to report their travel plans in advance. Finally, we were told that household registrations had been provided to villagers, and applications had been completed and submitted for national identity cards.
Discussing Lao Hmong issues with Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith, Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
Photo by Hoa Tran, PRM Program Officer, Vientiane, Laos. June 15, 2010.
On my second day in Laos, I met with members of the diplomatic community, as well as with Brigadier General Bouasieng and Deputy Prime Minister/Foreign Minister Thongloun Sisoulith. In those meetings, I explained our deep interest in the population of returnees, and I urged, in particular, that Lao officials consider three measures: 1) establishing an office that could receive and respond to inquiries about the status and well-being of individuals who were returned; 2) regular access to returnees by international humanitarian organizations; and 3) provision of a written record of those returned to Laos in December 2009. I suggested that these measures could go a long way in building confidence among a wide range of constituencies. Finally, I encouraged my Lao interlocutors to enable those individuals who were deemed by UNHCR to be Persons of Concern to take advantage of offers of resettlement that have been made by several governments.
Although we did not reach closure on any of these issues, I felt the conversations were constructive and provided the basis for progress. In particular, I was encouraged when my Lao interlocutors emphasized that all Lao citizens have the right to travel abroad, and I hope this will provide the basis for movement on the so-called Nong Khai group. We will continue discussions on these important issues in the weeks and months to come.
Assistant Secretary of State for Population, Refugees, and Migration