Canada targets Thailand for refugee treatment

OTTAWA — Canada is accusing the Thai government of flouting international law by sending UN-designated refugees back to their home country of Laos.

OTTAWA — Canada is accusing the Thai government of flouting international law by sending UN-designated refugees back to their home country of Laos.

Last week, Thailand deported about 4,500 ethnic Hmong, despite pleas from human-rights organizations and oft-stated concerns from the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees.

The group included 158 people officially designated as refugees, and thousands of others that the UN has not been able to assess.

In a massive military operation that rounded up people from camps, separated out community leaders, and cut off most outside contact, the Hmong were sent back to Laos — putting an end to the Hmong’s three-decade search for asylum following their alliance with the United States during the Vietnam War.

“This is totally unacceptable,” said Alykhan Velshi, spokesman for Immigration Minister Jason Kenney.

The UNHCR has never been allowed access to most of the 4,500 to determine whether they can be considered refugees, or whether they are illegal economic migrants, as the Thai government argues.

Of deeper concern is that among the 4,500 deportees is a group of 158 people — mainly children — that the UN has been able designate clearly as refugees.

For much of the last two years, the smaller group had been confined to a cramped and remote detention centre with little access to fresh air, said Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch in Asia.

Canada, the United States, Australia and the Netherlands have offered asylum to that group. They have hinted that if others among the 4,500 are designated refugees, they will take them, too.

Instead, Thailand sent them back to Laos, on the understanding that the Lao government would treat them well. That agreement has not been made public.

But international law says countries can’t send UN-designated refugees back to where they came from, Velshi notes.

“Forcible return of refugees violates international humanitarian principles and international legal norms prohibit refoulement (return) of refugees to a situation where they will face a threat of persecution,” he said in a statement.

“Our government is working with like-minded countries and the UNHCR to address this situation.”

The Thai government has said it has acted in accordance with its immigration act, with respect for human rights and humanitarian principles.

But Canada is accusing Thailand of failing “to provide protection to those who need it,” the statement said.

Canada has told the Lao government that it still wants to give asylum to some of the group of 158, even though they are no longer in Thailand. And Kenney has told Canadian officials to do what they can to track the welfare of these refugees.

As for the remaining Hmong, the UN is asking for independent access so that it can screen them for refugee status. As a first step, it wants Thailand and Laos to hand over a list of names. It is also calling on the two countries to make public their agreement on the treatment of the deportees.

But so far, Laos has only said that international observers would be able to visit later.

For now, they’re being held in camps where Lao officials said they are interviewing them about where they want to live.

“At the moment, we don’t know if they are in danger or not,” said Chupheng Lee, president of the Hmong Diaspora Leadership Council based in St. Paul, Minn.

The Hmong community in the United States is about 600,000-strong, Lee said. Up to 12,000 Hmong settled in Canada in the 1980s, mainly in Vancouver and Kitchener, Ont.

Canada has a long history of taking in refugees fleeing Communism, Velshi said, pointing to thousands of people who came to Canada from Hungary and Vietnam.

In the last few years, Canada also resettled about 2,000 Karen refugees from Myanmar who had been living in Thai refugee camps.