Thailand began to deport more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong asylum seekers back to Laos yesterday, defying pressure from the UN, the US and human rights organisations that say the group could face persecution on their return.
About 5,000 troops and officials entered the Hmong camp in Thailand's central Petchabun province in the morning to load residents on to buses to take them over the border, a process that a military official said might take 24 hours.
The Thai government said the communist authorities in Laos had given assurances that the people would be well treated and given amnesty. But the migrants say they are at risk from discrimination because they backed the US during the Vietnam war.
Many were soldiers or relatives of soldiers who fought in a secret army set up by the US both to try to cut supply lines to communist forces in south Vietnam, and to fight Laotian communists who eventually took over the country in 1975. Hundreds of thousands fled Laos after the communist takeover.
Colonel Thana Charuwat, who led the operation, said 2,100 residents of the camp had agreed to leave voluntarily and the army was trying to persuade the rest, but the authorities blocked media access and mobile phone connections to the camp, making it difficult to confirm his comments.
By evening, Human Rights Watch reported the camp had been emptied and 130 people judged to have resisted removal had been put in police trucks to be handed direct to the Laotian military at the border.
The US and the UN High Commissioner for Refugees urged Thailand to suspend the deportations. "We deeply regret this serious violation of the international humanitarian principles that Thailand has long been known for championing," said the US state department.
Panitan Wattanayagorn, a Thai government spokesman, said Bangkok was also planning to deport 158 Hmong who have been held for three years in a detention centre. This group, whose members have been identified as being in -danger by Bangkok, were being interviewed by representatives of Australia, Canada, the US and the Netherlands, with a view to giving them permanent sanctuary.
"Our plan is to send them back to Laos and that within a month they should be sent out to the third countries," Mr Panitan said.
The Thai government has denied international access to residents of the larger Hmong camp in Petchabun, insisting they are economic migrants rather than political refugees.
"Based on the evaluation of our officers, these people are illegal immigrants," said Mr Panitan.
But the UN High Commissioner said the Thai authorities originally informed them that some of the Hmong did need protection.
Médecins Sans Frontières, the Frenchcharity, was working in the camp until May when it pulled out, saying the army was trying to use its food and medical distributions to encourage the Hmong to return to Laos.
Amnesty International said some women and girls who were sent back in 2005 were detained for 18 months and another group of six, who returned at the same time, were still unaccounted for.
In the past, tens of thousands of refugees from Burma and Cambodia were given sanctuary in Thailand, but a year ago, the army was accused of towing back out to sea hundreds of Burmese refugees who had arrived by boat, leaving them with inadequate food and water. human rights groups say hundreds died.