Members of the Twin Cities Hmong community say they fear for the safety of refugees living in camps along the border of Thailand and Laos. In the past few days, the Thai government sent in troops to move several thousand refugees into Laos -- a country many of them fled.
Minnesota has one of the largest Hmong populations in the U.S., and some local Hmong leaders want the U.S. to ensure the safety of the refugees.
A representative of the Thai government told the Associated Press that many of the nearly 4,400 people in the border camp were fleeing economic hardship -- not political persecution. And Thai representatives told the press the Laotian government would not harm the refugees.
But local Hmong leaders say they suspect many of the camp residents have a legitimate fear of the Laotian government.
Lee Pao Xiong is the director of the Center for Hmong Studies at Concordia University. He's worried that the Thai government is lumping migrant workers with legitimate asylum-seekers, and can't determine who's who.
"Allegedly there are some people that came from the jungle of Laos and went into that camp -- about 200-300 people or so. So some of those people may have well-founded fear of persecution," said Xiong.
The Hmong are a rural people from the mountainous regions of several southeast Asian countries, including Laos. During the Vietnam war, thousands of Hmong fought on behalf of the U.S. in a secret battle against communist forces in Laos. In 1975, the communists won the country and began retaliating against the Hmong.
Like tens of thousands of other Hmong, Lee Pao Xiong and his family fled to Thailand and eventually came to the U.S. He says several thousand Hmong still live in refugee camps in Thailand, which is why so many Hmong are disturbed by the news of the involuntary exodus.
"A lot of the things that happen in Thailand also affect the Hmong community in the United States, because they have relatives in these places," he said.
Xiong estimates that about 10 percent of the more than 43,000 Hmong living in Minnesota have family members living in refugee camps.
Amee Xiong -- no blood relation to Lee Pao -- says her aunt has lived in various refugee camps for 10 years. Now she is among the thousands forced to go back to Laos.
"My aunt is really worried about going back to Laos and she's really scared," said Amee Xiong. "She has five children under the age of 18, they're young. She's really scared, if they return to Laos, of the consequences that will happen to her family."
Amee says her aunt has heard rumors that Hmong who get sent back to Laos have been killed.
Members of Twin Cities Hmong community groups and leaders have joined a chorus of human rights organizations in condemning the repatriation of refugees to Laos.
State Sen. Mee Moua, DFL-St. Paul, is Minnesota's first Hmong legislator. She says the news of the repatriation doesn't come as a surprise, but it is still cause for concern. Moua says she wants the U.S. to hold the Lao government to its promise that the refugees will be safe.
"I would also like to urge that the Lao government allow the United Nations and other humantarian organizations access to these families, at least at this initial stage, to ensure that they're safe and have access to food, shelter and medical attention," said Moua.
Moua says she doesn't know what will happen next, because there's conflicting information about where the refugees will be held once they return to Laos.
A Laotian government official told the Associated Press the refugees would be placed in temporary shelters, and later would be housed in what they called "development villages." The official said each family will receive a house and land, and that outside observers will be allowed to inspect the villages.