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Last Updated: Thursday, 28 July 2005, 19:33 GMT 20:33 UK
Hmong refugees pleading to stay
By Kylie Morris
BBC, Phetchabun, Thailand

A young ethnic Hmong refugee sits along a roadside in Phetchabun province in north-eastern Thailand, 10 July 2005
More than 5,000 Hmong refugees now live in Phetchabun's camps
In a temporary camp in Phetchabun, northern Thailand, there is a constant chorus of babies crying and children coughing.

Smoke rises from damp wood stacked under iron pots. It always seems to have rained, or to be on the point of doing so.

The camp is home to a growing number of Hmong refugees, who started arriving in the northern Thai province last year.

In recent months the numbers have grown to more than 5,000.

Children under five years old account for nearly half the hundreds who have sought medical care, from the temporary clinic inside a nearby schoolhouse.

The French aid agency Medicins Sans Frontieres has been distributing medicines, as well as blankets, and plastic sheeting.

Few options

The stories of those living in the camp are mixed. Some have come from settlements in other parts of Thailand - others directly from the jungles of Laos.

If I had stayed there inside Laos, I would have died... and we wouldn't survive a journey back
Nankeh Siloh
When we met her, Nankeh Siloh looked exhausted. She was waiting to see a doctor because her baby Gao, whom she was carrying in her arms, had diarrhoea and a bad cough.

She brought her two children to Phetchabun from Laos, and said that while she was worried about conditions in the roadside camp without proper sanitation and shelter, she had few other choices.

"If I had stayed there inside Laos, I would have died... and we wouldn't survive a journey back," she said. "At least, I thought, if came here, there's a chance our lives could improve."

Nankeh said she came to Thailand primarily because she had heard that the Americans were taking in more Hmong refugees.

Chong-Cha Lee, a Hmong rebel in Laos
Ethnic group that often complains of marginalisation in Lao society
Took the side of the US in the Vietnam War - and say they are persecuted because of it
Many still live in jungles
Small numbers say they are fighting rebel insurgency
Thousands have fled to Thailand in recent years
US took in 14,000 Hmong recently, but has no plans for taking more

It's a rumour that was probably spread by opportunistic smugglers, keen to take advantage of the Hmong's desperate situation inside Laos.

In the past 12 months, the United States agreed to resettle as many as 14,000 Hmong, most of whom had lived for years in temple grounds in Thailand.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were key allies of US forces. They rescued downed American pilots and disrupted North Vietnamese supply lines.

But when the communists won, in Vietnam and in Laos, they found themselves on the wrong side of history.

Many fled to neighbouring Thailand - but thousands remained, hiding in the jungles, and living in fear of attacks by Lao government troops.

But now the Americans say they have no plans for any more mass accommodation of the Hmong. The 5,000 who have arrived in Phetchabun appear to have come too late.

Individual claims

The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has asked that the Thai authorities consider the Hmong political refugees, and process their claims individually.

But the Thai army has made clear it wants to send them back - although Major General Weerasak Manee-in said they would be screened to discover who was at risk and who was an illegal immigrant.

"It's very difficult to tell them apart. Everyone claims that it's dangerous for them to go back," he said.

"But if there are justified cases we'll consider them. We'll do our best before we come to the point where we need to send them back."

Tongpai Yang is one of the refugees who is fervently hoping that never happens to him.

He was a fighter in the jungles, and has scars of gunshot wounds to his legs to prove it.

He said that, inside Laos, "many people were dying, and I realised we couldn't go on living like this. I'd heard in Thailand the Hmong can live more freely. That's why I decided to come".

For his family and fellow villagers, this journey has ended badly. Most know that it is likely they will be forced to move on by the Thai authorities.

Their choices appear to be few.

"I am a man who has no rights and no land. I can only hope to stay here, and wait for the Americans," said Tongpai Yang.

Forgotten Hmong find new home
14 Sep 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Hmong ordered from Thai camp
25 Aug 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Hmong refugees reach US
22 Jun 04 |  Asia-Pacific
Laos' forgotten Hmong
02 Jul 03 |  Asia-Pacific

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