WASHINGTON (AFP) - Nine US senators have written Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva to protest the possible expulsion of more than 4,000 ethnic Hmong back to communist Laos, where they fear persecution.
Thailand confirmed Wednesday the move would take place by year's end despite international outcry.
'While we recognize that the Kingdom of Thailand is burdened by the large number of refugees it hosts on its territory, we encourage you not to take steps to repatriate any individuals to Laos at this time,' the US lawmakers wrote Vejjajiva in a letter dated December 17.
The group of ethnic Hmong, held in a camp in Huay Nam Khao in northern Phetchabun province, are seeking political asylum based on claims they face persecution from the Laos regime because they fought alongside US forces during the Vietnam War.
Democratic senators Russ Feingold, Patrick Leahy, Barbara Boxer, Sheldon Whitehouse, Mark Begich, Amy Klobuchar, Al Franken and their Republican colleagues Richard Lugar and Lisa Murkowski denounced the Thai government's 'lack of transparency' in screening the refugees.
'We believe that the lack of transparency in the screening and repatriation process only exacerbates these difficulties and heightens international concerns regarding these populations,' the letter said.
The lawmakers urged Thailand to work with an independent third party to conduct a 'transparent' screening process that complies with international norms.
Leahy said on the Senate floor Wednesday that 'no one with a valid (refugee) claim should be returned to Laos except on a voluntary basis,' and compared the situation in Laos with Cambodia's repatriation to China last week of 20 Uighur Muslim refugees.
'Should the Hmong be treated similarly,' Leahy said, 'it could badly damage the Thai military's reputation, and put our military collaboration at risk.'
Laos has systematically denied the charges of persecution, while Thailand says the thousands held in Phetchabun are economic migrants and has refused access for the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) to see if there are political refugees.
The UNHCR and diplomats said they believe some could qualify as refugees, and as such should only be returned on a voluntary basis.
Although the defense ministry has said Thailand would not use force to return the remaining Hmong, there were reports Wednesday that the army had significantly boosted troop numbers in Phetchabun overnight, further stoking fears Bangkok would abide by the December 31 deadline.