Published: June 23, 1985

BANGKOK, Thailand, June 22, 1985 
More than 32,500 Laotians, most of whom fled across the Mekong River in the last year, are now crowded into a detention center in northeast Thailand that was built to house no more than 20,000. 

Conditions in the center, near the river town of Nakhom Phanom, are deteriorating and tensions are rising, according to voluntary aid officials and refugee workers. Thai authorities have barred reporters from the camp. 

''The people are living everywhere -in the little temple, in any space they can find,'' a Thai relief worker said. ''Services are limited, conditions are bad.'' 

At a news conference in Bangkok recently, William R. Smyser, United Nations Deputy High Commissioner for Refugees, said his office was concerned about the situation in the camp, which is known as Na Pho. 

''Na Pho is overcrowded and does pose a fire hazard,'' Mr. Smyser said. ‘'We have spoken to the Thai's about this.'' 

Some Western refugee officials here say they believe there may be close to 38,000 people at the center. Thousands are reportedly young men who are resisting the Laotian draft or looking for better economic opportunities abroad.  Refugee officials say these unemployed and restless men - as many as 5,000 or 6,000 - are not likely to be accepted by third countries, and are considered a potentially volatile element in the camp population. 

Officials in Bangkok have refused requests from provincial authorities to expand the detention center into the surrounding farmland, a move United Nations refugee officials recommend. 

‘They Can Send More Doctors' 
As a matter of policy intended to deter would-be refugees, Thailand has sought to limit the camp. In an interview, the secretary general of the country's National Security Council, Prasong Soonsiri, said that ''there is no policy to enlarge Na Pho.'' 

''If they want to improve medical care, they can send more doctors, more nurses,'' he said. He disagreed that the overcrowding posed a fire hazard.   The Thai Government, faced with a continuing flow of Laotian refugees despite all efforts to stop it, is also limiting the scope of resettlement efforts in the camp, refugee workers say. 

The United States has opened files on about 3,000 people at the camp who may qualify for American residence. But Immigration and Naturalization Service officers have not been permitted to interview candidates.   Refugee workers say that as soon as word spreads on the Laotian side of the Mekong that refugees are moving on to third countries, hundreds more people are expected to cross into Thailand. 

About 7,000 Laotians have sought refugee status in Thailand so far this year. More than 18,000 arrived in 1984. In 1982 and 1983, when Laotians were not being moved on to third countries, only about 6,000 arrived each year.

“Most Are Not Hill People" 
Almost all arrivals in the last 18 months have been ethnic or ''lowland'' Laotians, not the Hmong and other hill people who formed the majority of immigrants in the early years after the Communist takeover of Laos in 1975. 

In the last two months, there has been only one Hmong arrival in Thailand, according to United Nations figures. But more than 50,000 Hmong and other tribal people remain in other Thai camps, and some have been there for eight or more years. 

Many are refusing resettlement despite offers of new homes in the West. The Thai Government says it is hoping to curtail Laotian migration by introducing a screening system designed to separate political exiles quickly from economic migrants. 

Under the system, which officials expect to begin using about July 1, provincial-level committees will interview all new arrivals. Those deemed to be genuine refugees will be sent to transit centers for resettlement abroad. The others will be returned to Laos by agreement with the Laotian Government, which has told the United Nations that they will not suffer retribution. 

Mr. Prasong said Laotians would qualify for refugee status only if they had close relatives in resettlement countries, had been political prisoners or were closely associated with the former Government of Laos. He said he intended to apply the criteria to refugees in the Nakhon Phanom center also, and would repatriate those who failed the test. 

Until now, Laotians had assumed that if they could reach the camp they were free of the threat of involuntary repatriation. There are reports all along the Mekong of Laotians buying their way or sneaking into Na Pho. 

“More Humane Alternative" 
Screening is being introduced as a more humane and effective alternative to a Thai policy of waving off or pushing back refugee boats and rafts crossing the Mekong, which provincial authorities along the river were asked to do at the beginning of this year. In the last six months, it has become clear to officials that local authorities were not always enforcing the ban on unauthorized landings. 

There have been reports in Washington recently that all refugee boats from Laos were being pushed back, but evidence indicates this is not the case.   Refugees say that when word spread that one police region was turning back boats, people began crossing instead at other points where the reception was not hostile. There is much sympathy for the Laotian people in northeastern Thailand, where language and culture are similar and where family relationships span the river.



Published January 20, 1997  From Bangkok Bureau Chief Tom Mintier

When the war in Southeast Asia ended in 1975, there were nearly 50,000 Laotian refugees in the Na Pho refugee camp in northeastern Thailand. Now, more than 20 years later, about 2,000 of them remain.

Life in the camp has changed little in the last two decades. A third generation is learning how to be refugees. They refuse to return to Laos and have not been accepted for resettlement in the United States, where they had hoped to migrate. But life for those refugees is about to change drastically.

Under an agreement between Thailand, Laos and the United States, the camp is scheduled to close by the end of June. The closure is a necessity in order for Laos to be admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Only a few of those who fled the communist takeover of Laos are still being accepted for resettlement in the United States. Many have been refused because they still use the opium they once cultivated in the mountains of Laos.

As time passed, some of the camp's families made the decision to return to Laos. In 1994, more than 5,000 returned, and in 1995, the number was half of that. But last year, only nine people went home after rumors spread that the United States would reconsider their cases. Most of those remaining are from hill tribes who fought against the communists, and are afraid to return.

Sai Da Wang, who says he was a soldier at 15 and a refugee at 21, has lived at the Na Pho camp since 1975. One of his sons has resettled in California, and Sai is eligible to live there, but won't go. Uneducated, he fears he would be a burden for his son, and returning to Laos is out of the question.

Life at the Na Pho camp is on a strict schedule. Every Thursday, each adult is given three and a half kilos of rice for the week. Most of the rice has been donated by the European Union, and stockpiles are now low with the anticipated closing of this camp.

There is no luxury in this camp. Only the basic needs are provided -- food and shelter.  It is a place where people continue living in the past. Rotting buildings and open sewers are here, as they have been for more than two decades. 

Like Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees before them, their time to stay is nearly over. Governments like Thailand's are eager to put the reminders of war behind them. Negotiations are now about business. One of the most striking images in the Na Pho camp is something that will never leave -- airline seats, initially brought to the camp to prepare the refugees for what to expect on their hoped-for trip to the United States.

They are no longer used except for children to play on, but serve as a constant reminder for the refugees still stuck here of what might have been.




Ban Vinai Refugee Camp, officially the Ban Vinai Holding Center, was a refugee camp in Thailand from 1975 until 1992. Ban Vinai primarily housed highland people, especially Hmong, who fled communist rule in Laos. Ban Vinai had a maximum population of about 45,000 Hmong and other highland people. 

Many of the highland Lao were resettled in the United States and other countries. Many others lived in the camp for years which came to resemble a crowded and large Hmong village. The Royal Thai Government closed the camp in 1992, forced some of the inhabitants to return to Laos and removed the rest of them to other refugee camps. 

In May 1975, soldiers of the communist Pathet Lao and North Vietnamese Army captured Long Tieng, the headquarters of Hmong General Vang Pao and his 30,000 man CIA-supported army which had fought against the communists for nearly 15 years. Vang Pao and other Hmong leaders were evacuated to Thailand by the CIA's Jerry Daniels, and American civilian pilots. Vang Pao and a few others were soon permitted to come to the United States. 

In the wake of the evacuation, tens of thousands of Hmong, mostly former soldiers and their families, fled Thailand by foot during the next few years, crossing the Mekong River into Thailand. In December 1975, Ban Vinai was created to house the influx, hosting an initial population of 12,000 refugees. The CIA reportedly contributed several million dollars to build and run the camp.

The site of Ban Vinai is located in northeastern Thailand and the camp covered about 400 acres.  It was as crowded with makeshift shacks built by the refugees themselves, plus administration buildings, dormitories, warehouses, health care centers, and other facilities. Ban Vinai had the appearance of an overgrown Hmong village, albeit seriously overcrowded.

The population of Ban Vinai remained around 12,000 until 1979 when it climbed rapidly as a result of an increased flow of Hmong from Laos. By 1985, the population reached a peak of about 45, 000 people. Ninety-five percent were Hmong, but other ethnic groups represented included the Htin (Phai people), Yao (Mien), Lu, Khmu, Lao Theung, Tai Dam, Musor (Lahu), Haw (Hani), and lowland Lao.

The camp commander was a Thai, chosen by the provincial government and the Thai Ministry of Interior which oversaw the camp. The camp was divided into nine sectors, each with a refugee leader who together formed the Refugee Committee. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), with donations from the United States and other countries, funded most assistance to the refugees, including food, housing, education, and health. More than a dozen international charitable non-governmental organizations worked in the camp implementing programs and running facilities on behalf of UNHCR, other donors, and the refugees.

Initially, all the refugees in Ban Vinai were granted temporary asylum in Thailand with the expectation that they would either soon return to Laos or be resettled in a third country. Thailand refused to grant Hmong the right to remain in Thailand permanently. 

However, in the 1980s, many refugees refused to return to Laos and did not seek resettlement to the United States or other countries. They demanded instead that the Lao government guarantee their safe return to Laos and autonomy.

Some of the reluctance of the Hmong to resettle was fear of the challenges of moving to an industrial society.  In Ban Vinai, the Hmong were able to maintain a semblance of their traditional culture and society. Reluctance was also based on the reported influence of Vang Pao and other leaders urging them to remain in Thailand as a prelude for a return to Laos and the overthrow of the communist government. 

Some of the Hmong used Ban Vinai as a base for resistance to the government of Laos. The reluctance to resettle began to change in 1985. A younger generation of Hmong was willing to adopt new customs and lifestyles and the Thai government was pressuring refugees to accept resettlement or to be forcibly repatriated to Laos. By 1986, the average length of time residents had lived in the camp was nearly seven years. 

The government of Thailand initiated a program called "humane deterrence" to make life more difficult for refugees and to discourage additional refugees from coming to Thailand. In 1983, Thailand closed Ban Vinai to new arrivals, although several thousand Hmong were able to slip into the camp during the next several years. 

In 1985, the Thai began to "push back" Hmong and other Lao attempting to cross the border into Thailand and began forcible repatriation of Hmong from Ban Vinai to Laos. Human rights organizations opposed the forced repatriation and cited evidence in 1987 that returnees were arrested upon their return to Laos. To placate the Thai government and reduce the forced repatriations and "push backs" of Hmong refugees, the US government doubled its quota for resettlement of Lao, including Hmong, from 4,000 to 8,000 annually in early 1988.

After several years of increased resettlement of Hmong abroad, declining numbers of new refugees, and repatriations to Laos. Thailand closed Ban Vinai Refugee Camp at the end of 1992. The remaining Hmong and Lao refugees in Thailand were distributed to other camps and refugee centers, notably Wat Tham Krabok.

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