12.23.09

Senate Floor Statement On The Fate of Hmong Refugees

Mr. LEAHY.  Mr. President, I want to speak briefly about a worrisome humanitarian situation that is developing in Thailand, which could cause problems for our relations with the Thai military.
 
Thailand and the United States are long time friends and allies, and our armed forces have developed a cooperative relationship.  Many Thai military officers have been trained in the United States, and Thai soldiers have participated in joint U.S.-Thai training exercises such as Operation Cobra Gold.  I expect this relationship to continue.  But I am very concerned, as I know are other Senators, that the Thai Government may be on the verge of deporting roughly 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to Laos where many fear persecution.

Thailand has a long history of generosity towards refugees from Burma, Laos, Cambodia and Vietnam.  It is a history to be proud of.  But the Thai Government, which insists that the Hmong are economic migrants who should be repatriated, has reportedly deployed additional troops to Phetchabun province where most of the Hmong are in camps.  There is a growing concern that the Thai military may expel the Hmong before the end of the year.  There is also concern that a group of 158 Hmong in Nongkhai province, who have been screened and granted United Nations refugee status, could be sent back to Laos.  I understand that the United States and several countries have told the UN High Commissioner for Refugees and the Thai Government they are prepared to consider this group of refugees for resettlement.  Potential resettlement countries should be given an opportunity to interview these individuals in Thailand.
 
It may be that some of the 4,000 Hmong are economic migrants.  It is also likely that some are refugees who have a credible fear of persecution if they were returned to Laos.  I am aware that many Hmong fought alongside the U.S. military during the Vietnam War.  The UN High Commissioner for Refugees, working with Thai authorities, needs to determine who has a legitimate claim for asylum and who does not, in accordance with long-standing principles of refugee law and practice.  No one with a valid claim should be returned to Laos except on a voluntary basis.  The United States, and other countries, can help resettle those who do have valid claims but need access and the opportunity to consider relevant cases.   
 
I mention this because I cannot overstate the consternation it would cause here if the Thai Government were to forcibly return the Hmong to Laos in violation of international practice and requirements.  The image of Laotian refugees – including many who the United Nations and the Thai Government itself have stated are in need of protection – being rounded up by Thai soldiers and sent back against their will during the Christmas season, and the possible violence that could result, is very worrisome.  On December 17th I joined other Senators in a letter to the Thai Prime Minister about this, and I ask that a copy be printed in the Record at the end of my remarks.
 
As Chairman of the Department of State, Foreign Operations, and Related Programs Subcommittee of the Appropriations Committee which funds international assistance programs, I have supported U.S. military training programs and other assistance to the Thai military.  We share common interests and want to continue to work together.  But after the deplorable forced repatriation to China of Uighur refugees by Cambodian authorities last week, we expect better of the Thai Government.  Should the Hmong be treated similarly it could badly damage the Thai military’s reputation, and put our military collaboration at risk.

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