BANGKOK - Human rights activists and diplomats voiced fears Tuesday for the fate of thousands of ethnic Hmong asylum seekers, including children, expelled by Thailand to its communist neighbour Laos.
The Thai army said it completed the deportation of more than more than 4,000 Hmong on Monday, despite international protests and calls from the United States and the United Nations to halt the operation.
Rights group Amnesty International also said there were "concerns that provisions to meet the humanitarian needs of the returnees once in Laos are inadequate".
The Hmong, a Southeast Asian ethnic group, were seeking asylum in Thailand saying they risked persecution by the Laotian regime for fighting alongside US forces in the Vietnam War during the 1960s and 1970s.
But Bangkok -- which used 5,000 troops armed with batons and shields to load the groups of men, women and children on to trucks for the deportations from a camp in northern Thailand -- said most were illegal economic migrants.
It did not allow the United Nations to assess if any of the total 4,371 expelled from the camp were political refugees.
However, Thailand also sent back on Monday a separate group of 158 Hmong with recognised UN refugee status, in a move the UN refugee agency (UNHCR) said was a breach of international law.
Laotian foreign affairs spokesman Khenthong Nuanthasing said the authorities did not recognise any refugees in the returning group and that all of the Hmong had been illegal immigrants in Thailand.
But he said they all would have a choice between going back to their home villages or to "new development villages", or they could formally request to go abroad. He denied international access to the community would be difficult.
"We are transparent all the time. We allowed the US, the EU delegation to visit the new villages," he said.
But a Western diplomat in Bangkok told AFP that it "seems difficult to imagine there will be fully fledged international access to the Hmong community on arrival, given the past experiences of repatriation".
Since 2005, Amnesty said it has documented cases in which Hmong were detained, disappeared, and reportedly tortured after being forcibly returned to Laos.
The UNHCR expressed "dismay" over Thailand's expulsion of the 158 Hmong, including almost 90 children, with refugee status.
"The forcible return of refugees to their country of origin is a violation of international customary law," said spokeswoman Ariane Rummery.
"It's a departure from Thailand's longstanding humanitarian practice as a major country of asylum in the region and that's a very grave example internationally."
Thailand said the refugees must return to Laos before they can take up offers of resettlement in Western countries.
"The Thai government has told UNHCR that it had received assurances from Laos that the group of 158 recognised refugees will be allowed to be resettled in third countries after their return to Laos," said Rummery.
"We certainly hope Thailand remains engaged in the issue to ensure that these can take place."
Thai army Lieutenant General Niphat Thonglek said the Laotian regime "pledges to take care of them well while waiting for third countries to contact and take them".
But Laos spokesman Khenthong said they "didn't promise anything" about resettlement.
Thousands of Hmong, a highland people, sided with the United States in the 1960s and 1970s during the Vietnam War and formed a CIA-funded "secret army" when the conflict spread to Laos.
When the Communists took power in the Lao capital Vientiane in 1975, Hmong fighters feared the regime would hunt them down for working with the Americans. About 150,000 fled and found homes abroad, mainly in the United States.
Others hid in the Lao jungle, some fighting a low-level rebellion which has been largely quashed. Thousands have fled to neighbouring Thailand, which also backed the United States in the war.
Laotian officials say more than 3,000 Hmong have previously been repatriated from Thailand successfully.