Samuel Witten, a senior Department of State official, visited Laos and Thailand from July 27 – August 1, 2009. Mr. Witten’s visit followed Secretary of State Hillary Clinton’s meetings with senior Royal Thai Government officials on July 21-22, 2009, during which humanitarian issues were discussed in the context of Thailand’s historical generosity to persons fleeing conflict in neighboring countries.
The principal focus of Mr. Witten’s visit to both countries was the situation of certain Lao Hmong who have entered Thailand over the past few years. At present, about 4,700 Lao Hmong remain detained in a Royal Thai Army-run camp in Petchabun Province, Thailand, and an additional 158 (which includes almost 90 children) are in long-term detention in an immigration detention center in Nong Khai, Thailand.
In his meetings with Lao and Thai civilian and military leaders, Mr. Witten emphasized the interest of the United States and the international community in finding a humanitarian solution to both protracted situations. Of particular pressing humanitarian concern is the situation of the Nong Khai group, which has been identified by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) as qualifying for international protection under its mandate. Mr. Witten visited the Nong Khai immigration detention center and viewed a U.S.–funded project, implemented by the International Organization for Migration, to construct and run a temporary shelter adjacent to the detention center. The U.S.-funded project relieves overcrowding in the small facility for parts of each day and also includes a nurse and teacher for the children confined at Nong Khai. Mr. Witten urged that the Nong Khai group, which has been detained by Thai authorities for over two-and-a-half years, not be returned involuntarily to Laos and should instead, for humanitarian reasons, be released immediately from the Nong Khai facility.
Mr. Witten also visited the Petchabun detention facility. The United States funds several humanitarian organizations to provide food, water, sanitation and medical care for the 4,700 detainees at that location. In his meetings, Mr. Witten noted the importance of an appropriate and transparent screening process to identify those detainees who may have protection concerns; those Lao Hmong who are found to be in need of protection should not be forcibly returned to Laos. He also noted that the U.S. Government has no plans for a large-scale resettlement program for Lao Hmong in Thailand; however, the U.S. Refugee Admissions Program, as it does elsewhere in the world, will consider referrals on a case-by-case basis.
In his meetings in Laos and Thailand, Mr. Witten also recognized Lao Government efforts to increase transparency regarding the welfare of repatriated Lao Hmong, and emphasized that transparency is the best way to build confidence about this ongoing process.
In a visit to Tak province along the Thai-Burma border, Mr. Witten viewed the joint U.S. - Thai humanitarian effort to offer third country resettlement for Burmese refugees in the established camps. Over 14,000 refugees from the camps in Thailand will be resettled in the United States and at least another 4,500 Burmese refugees are expected to be resettled in the United States from other locations in the region this year.
Mr. Witten also visited Mae La refugee camp-- Thailand’s largest refugee camp. In FY 2009, the United States intends to provide over $12 million to assist Burmese refugees in the region, of which over $10 million will go to non-governmental organizations to provide food, shelter, water and sanitation, health and gender-based violence prevention and response programs for refugees in camps in Thailand.
In June 2009, about 3,000 ethnic Karen Burmese refugees entered Thailand in nearby Tha Song Yang district, fleeing fighting in Burma. Mr. Witten toured the temporary refuge area designated by the Royal Thai Government. He met with Karen refugees and viewed assistance projects funded in part by the United States. The United States is supporting a consortium of non-governmental organizations which provide emergency assistance to the Karen refugees, and very much appreciates the Royal Thai Government’s policy decision to provide temporary protection to this vulnerable group, which consists mostly of women and children.