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Haven for the Hmong

Friday, December 25, 2009; A24

SOUTHEAST ASIA has witnessed more than its share of war and political violence in the past half-century. From the bloody conflict and communist repression in Vietnam, to the killing fields of Cambodia, to the various crackdowns in Burma, the region's woes have generated hundreds of thousands of refugees in need of haven and resettlement. Throughout that time, the most peaceful and politically open country in the area, Thailand, has generally made room for those fleeing persecution and danger.

Thailand's performance stands in contrast to that of other nearby states, such as China, which has frequently repatriated North Koreans escaping starvation and tyranny. Indeed, Beijing has pressured other countries to adopt a similarly ungenerous approach to those fleeing China's own internal repression: Just last week, the Cambodian government of Prime Minister Hun Sen forcibly sent home 20 Uighur asylum seekers who fled after the July protests in Urumqi, China -- despite the fact that they had been issued "Persons of Concern" letters by the U.N. Nations High Commissioner for Refugees office in Cambodia.

Now there are signs that Thailand, too, may be turning its back on its international obligation not to expel legitimate refugees. The Hmong people of neighboring Laos have been targets going back to the days four decades ago when they fought alongside the United States against the communists who now run Laos. The United States has resettled many of them. But Thailand is moving to expel about 4,300 Hmong asylum seekers held within its territory. Not all of them necessarily merit protection under international law; clearly, though, many do. Among those reportedly at risk of deportation are 158 Hmong in detention in Nong Khai province who have been screened and granted U.N. refugee status. U.S. officials are concerned that the Thai military, which controls a refugee camp holding 4,200 of the Hmong, has not permitted a fair and transparent process to determine who among the camp residents would merit protection.

The U.S. government is urging Bangkok not to forcibly return the Hmong, so that potential refugees may be interviewed by officials from the United States and other nations offering to resettle refugees. Thailand has legitimate concerns about the burden on its economy posed by irregular migrants. But it has no reason to hastily or arbitrarily push out people who may be at risk. Working together with the United States and other friends, Thailand can avoid staining its proud record.

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