(Apr. 30, 2009) Kasit Priomya, Thailand's Foreign Minister, visited the United States in late April 2009, and he discussed the status of ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos now living in a detention center in Thailand. Meeting with U.S. Secretary of State Hillary Clinton, he said that the Hmong “are regarded as political asylum seekers, so they have the right to request resettlement in the United States and other countries.” In addition to the United States, Australia and Canada have said they would be willing to accept refugees. (Supalak Ganjanakhundee, Thailand Will Facilitate Resettlement in Third Countries for 158 Hmong Refugees Being Detained in Nong Khai, Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya Said Friday, THE NATION (Bangkok), Apr. 24, 2009, available at http://www.nationmultimedia.com/2009/04/24/regional/regional_30101266.ph
Those eligible for resettlement are now in the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Center, having been detained for deportation in Bangkok on November 17, 2006, and moved to the Center a few weeks later. The group at that time consisted of 147 people, but in the last few years there have been several births, bringing the group total to 158. About 5,000 other Hmong in a shelter in Phetchabun, Thailand, are not considered to be political refugees, but are rather classed as economic migrants. As such they are not eligible for asylum abroad and will be repatriated to Laos by the end of the year under an agreement concluded in March 2009 between Thailand and Laos.
The agreement, which also settled some border issues between the countries, calls for transparency in the repatriation program, with international monitors, and guarantees of safety for the returning Laotians. Once back in their home country, the Hmong would have the right to request permission to move to other countries. Those not willing to return may be assisted to find third-country homes. Thailand will provide funds to Laos in the amount of Bt1.5 million (about US$42,860) to build a new village to house the returnees. (Id.; Thailand, Laos Agree on Repatriation, SUABHMONG RADIO, Mar. 25, 2009, available at http://www.shrdo.com/index.php?option=com_content&view=article&i
The Nong Khai group has been documented by the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees as political refugees, but Thailand has not permitted anyone from the Commissioner's office to interview those at Phetchabun. Although Thailand has said that the international community will be able to monitor conditions for the Hmong on their return to Laos, the nongovernmental organization Society for Threatened Peoples has expressed a different view. Rebecca Sommer of that group stated:
That is a serious outrage. Laos is a communist country with a very bad human rights record. It is extremely unlikely that Laos will ever allow international human rights organizations or journalists free, unhindered access to the returnees. That Thailand continues to claim these refugees fled Laos for economic reasons is not true, it can be proven not to be true. Most of them fled from persecution in Laos, to seek safety. And we don't believe that they are safe once returned to Laos.
(Resettlement of 158 Hmong Lao Refugees in Thailand Leaves Thousands More in Despair, HUNTINGTONNEWS.NET, Apr. 26, 2009, available at http://www.huntingtonnews.net/columns/090426-staff-columnshmonglaorefuge