There is growing international condemnation of Thailand’s decision to expel some 4,400 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers to neighbouring Laos.
The operation, led by the army, began at first light this morning.
Around 5,000 troops armed with batons and shields were sent to a mountain camp 300 kilometres north of Bangkok to evict the Hmong who say they face oppression by Laos’ communist government if sent back.
Reporters were barred from the camp during the repatriation but it is believed no violence broke out.
After passing through an immigration centre in the border town of Nong Khai, the Hmong will be driven to Paksane in the Bolikshamsai province.
Trained and equipped by the CIA to fight, the Hmong sided with the Americans during the Vietnam War. But they became widely known as the United States’ “forgotten allies.”
Many fled Laos in 1975 when the communist Pathet Lao took power. Amid claims of persecution by the Laos government, many Hmong sought refuge in Thailand.
Originally from China’s southern mountainous region, there are now some five million Hmong around the world.
Behind China, Vietnam is home to most, and although tens of thousands have since been resettled in the US, this time Washington refused to open up its doors.
Many people, however, will only have heard of the Hmong through Clint Eastwood’s drama Gran Torino which explores some of the experiences Hmong immigrants and their descendants face.
Washington has described the Thai operation as a “serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing”.
France said it “deplored” the Thai decision and UN High Commissioner for Refugees Antonio Guterres urged Bangkok to stop the deportations.
Sweden, which holds the rotating EU presidency, said it was deeply dismayed.
The Laos government says the Hmong being repatriated are illegal migrants who would be housed in resettlement villages.
But that is unlikely to quell concerns about the Hmong whom Thailand also regards as
economic migrants with no claim to refugee status.