Médecins Sans Frontières (MSF), or Doctors without Borders as they are otherwise known, runs the risk of creating a humanitarian crisis if it goes ahead with plans to withdraw from a refugee camp in Northern Thailand in protest at the Thai government’s treatment of the Hmong.
This warning was sounded yesterday by Yap Swee Seng, director of Forum-Asia, a regional human rights organisation with 42 member-organisations across the region.
MSF announced earlier in the week that due to ongoing difficulties and barriers put in its way by the Thailand government, it was discontinuing its work at the Huay Nam Khao camp in Phetchabun province.
MSF said it will withdraw the medical and other aid it has been providing more than 5,000 Hmong refugees to protest what it describes as coercive tactics and action by the Thai military against the Hmong.
Policies severely curtail aid workers’ ability
At a press conference on Wednesday, May 20, MSF Thailand director, Gilles Isard, said the group is working with UNICEF to hand over responsibilities of caring for the camp’s residents to another NGO, but so far no replacement had been found.
MSF claims to have had continual problems with Thai military officials and the Thai Army’s psychological operations unit in Phitsanulok.
However, Mr Yap said protesting in this manner and withdrawing services will hurt the very people MSF are supposed to be helping and will cause the Hmong greater difficulties and discomfort, possibly leading to a humanitarian crisis.
Mr Yap said he had personally never heard of a nongovernmental organization (NGO) protesting working conditions imposed by a host country by withdrawing its services before. Usually it is a government telling an NGO they are no longer welcome.
“It’s a matter of grave concern… it will be very unfortunate if the assistance supplied to this camp is cut off. The community will suffer and with the wet season now underway they [Hmong refugees] will be more in need of medical care than in the dry season. Their protest action could result in a humanitarian crisis”, he said.
A similar view was expressed by Steve Gumaer, head of Partners World, an NGO that runs programmes for orphaned and displaced children, provides emergency relief, development, and capacity building with other minority groups under the name of Partners Relief & Development in Thailand’s northern and northwestern provinces.
Mr Gumaer said he had never heard of an NGO protesting in a manner like this before. It’s just going to make it worse for the Hmong refugees. It’s not going to shake the Thais. It sounds like the wrong way of going about making their point.
MSF claims the Thai military’s scare tactics to pressure ethnic Lao Hmong refugees to accept a forced return to Lao PDR and its intensifying restrictions on MSF’s activities, such as trying to force MSF to temporarily cut food distributions to the refugee population and forcing patients to pass through military control to obtain medical care, have compelled MSF to terminate its medical relief program.
NGOs decry protest
The international humanitarian aid organisation, established by a group of French doctors and journalists in 1971 in the wake of the famine in Biafra, Nigeria, said it will withdraw from the camp, and issued a final appeal to the Thai and Laotian governments to immediately stop deporting the Hmong refugees in Huay Nam Khao and to allow an independent third party to review the refugees’ claims for protection and to monitor any repatriations.
Laos and Thailand claim all 5,000 Hmong in the camp are economic migrants and that the 2,000 or so ethnic Hmong refugees already returned to Lao PDR have gone back voluntarily.
However, MSF say the Lao government’s human rights record is poor and there is minimal transparency, because the UN or third parties are forbidden from properly monitoring the Hmong refugees after their return.
Last year MSF called for international monitors to screen the Hmong for those with genuine refugee claims, saying dozens of people in the camp had bullet wounds. There was the potential for riots and suicides if the Hmong were not properly screened before being returned to Laos, it said.
MSF has been providing food, shelter, and medical care worth more than €1 million (about US$1.365 million) a year to the Huay Nam Khao camp and it is the size of the contribution and the hole that will be left when they withdraw that has people worried.
Other NGOs contacted refused to make on-the-record comments for fear of generating a rift in the close-knit NGO community. All claimed to be shocked and surprised by the decision of an NGO to protest by taking away the very services they were established to provide, from the people they are supposed to be providing it to.
Mr Yap said it will be very difficult to find another NGO to step in and fill the gap left by MSF. “MSF have the expertise and it will take time for other NGOs to mobilise the resources, the funds, and the people”.
If MSF suddenly abandons the Huay Nam Khao camp, Mr Yap said he would expect it to take at least a month or more before other NGOs were ready to mobilise, and for the necessary approvals to be granted by the Thai government for any replacement programme to be introduced.
“Refugees are the most vulnerable group in the society and I hope the Thai government takes note of what is happening and the reasons for it. The government has a responsibility to protect those who are vulnerable”, Mr Yap said.
The Hmong have long been a bone of contention in relationships between Thailand and Lao.
The secret war and the Hmong
In the early 1960s the US Central Intelligence Agency (CIA) began recruiting and training Lao Hmong for fighting in the Vietnam War. Some estimates put the number of Hmong men in Laos who joined the fighting at 60 per cent of the population.
Under the identity of the Special Guerrilla Unit, the CIA used Hmong fighters to block the Ho Chi Minh Trail, the main military supply route from Vietnam’s north to the south, and to rescue downed American pilots.
From 1967 to 1971, 3,772 Hmong soldiers were killed in combat, with another 5,426 injured or disabled. Between 1962 and 1975 about 12,000 Hmong died fighting the communist-nationalist Pathet Lao in Laos, in what became known as the Secret War.
When the Pathet Lao took over the government in 1975 the Hmong were singled out for retribution, and tens of thousands fled to Thailand seeking political asylum.
The Thai army claims only about 100 Hmong in the camp have proven links to those who fought for the CIA in the Secret War against the communists, however, MSF and major human rights groups and Hmong advocates in the US believe the number of legitimate refugees could be many times higher.
MSF said its decision to withdraw from the Huay Nam Khao camp would not affect a project run by MSF France in Mae Sot treating migrants for tuberculosis, or another project operated by MSF Belgium in Sangkhla Buri treating ethnic Mon from Burma for malaria.
Feature video Doctors Without Borders / MSF-USA
This story has been updated to include information made available at the Médecins Sans Frontières press conference on the afternoon of May 20, 2009 that was not available at the time the original story was written on May 19. The information may have altered the opinions and/or views of those interviewed and quoted for the original story.
He has spent extensive periods of time working in Africa and throughout Southeast Asia, with stints in the Middle East, the USA, and England.
He has covered major world events including Operation Desert Shield/ Storm, the 1991 pillage in Zaire, the 1994 Rwanda genocide, the 1999 East Timor independence unrest, the 2004 Asian tsunami, and the 2009, 2010, and 2014 Bangkok political protests.
In 1995 he was a Walkley Award finalist, the highest awards in Australian journalism, for his coverage of the 1995 Zaire (now Democratic Republic of Congo) Ebola outbreak.
Most recently he was the Thailand editor/ managing editor of AEC News Today . Prior to that he was the deputy editor and Thailand and Greater Mekong Sub-region editor for The Establishment Post, predecessor of Asean Today.
In the mid-80s and early 90s he owned JLF Promotions, the largest above and below the line marketing and PR firm servicing the high-technology industry in Australia. It was sold in 1995.
Opinions and views expressed on this site are those of the author’s only. Read more at About me
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