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Thai Country Studies

The Indochinese Refugee Question in Thailand

The forced migrations of Indochinese to Thailand for political or economic reasons had been a common occurrence throughout the 200 years of the Chakkri Dynasty. The most recent refugee influx began in 1975 with the fall of the Lon Nol regime in Cambodia, then the collapse of the South Vietnamese government in April, followed by the change of leadership in Laos in December.

According to official Thai figures, 228,200 refugees, mostly from Laos, entered Thailand between 1975 and 1978. Included were Lao, Khmer, Tai Dam, Tai Nung, and Hmong, who came overland, and Vietnamese, who came by boat. Fifteen camps and four detention centers were established and jointly funded and operated by the Thai government, the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR), and various international relief agencies. Most of the camps were along the border with Laos and Cambodia or at ports on the Gulf of Thailand. Until October 1977, Thai authorities generally accepted incoming Indochinese on the assumption that they would stay only until repatriated or relocated elsewhere.

After the coup of October 1977, the new Kriangsak Chomanand government reviewed Thai refugee policy. As a result of the growing refugee burden, the Thai government made it clear that greater international recognition of the refugee problem was needed, as well as financial and technical support for Thailand’s relief program. Citing population pressures, land shortages, and potential economic friction between Thai and refugees, the Thai government refused to permit permanent resettlement of large numbers of refugees. Thus, in November 1977 the government banned new arrivals from Laos (termed “illegals”) on the basis of the determination that these refugees were economically rather than politically motivated.

The actual number of Lao in Thailand continued to be impossible to determine; in 1987 Thai authorities claimed that up to 10,000 arrived daily, adding to an estimated 84,000 Lao refugees and illegals already in the Mekong Valley and border camps. Of the 42,000 inhabitants of Ban Vanai camp, between 3,000 and 6,000 were illegals. These numbers were subject to rapid change because of government-enforced repatriation, resettlement, and voluntary returns. In 1987 Amnesty International expressed concern over the fate of 155 Hmong who presumably were forcibly repatriated from Thailand; they were then arrested and detained without charge or trial by Lao authorities. This alleged incident may have led to resettlement requests by at least 5,000 Hmong (there were 56,000 in Thai camps) at the time. There was also a steady flow of persons returning to Laos on their own.

Laotians were not the only refugees caught in the Thai repatriation policy, which vacillated between national interest and humanitarian concerns. In 1979 tens of thousands of people, mostly ethnic Chinese, began to leave Vietnam by sea; hostilities between China and Vietnam directly or indirectly encouraged this migration by boat. Ships of the Royal Thai Navy sometimes discouraged Vietnamese refugee craft from attempting landings; some of Thailand’s neighbors had been even more strict about turning away “boat people.” Despite its relatively lenient position, Thailand was judged harshly by the international community as a result of reported acts of piracy by Thai vessels. However, because of increased vigilance and improvement in training of Thai maritime police in the 1980s, convictions for piracy increased significantly, and Thai fishermen began to provide greater assistance to the boat people. Nonetheless, the international press continued to report acts of piracy by Thai citizens.

In January 1979, Cambodia’s Pol Pot regime was overthrown in fighting between Vietnamese and Khmer Rouge forces, and hundreds of thousands of destitute Cambodian civilians fled westward to the provinces of their country adjacent to the Thai border. Tensions built quickly along the ill-defined and disputed ThaiCambodian border. It was extremely difficult for Thai police to mount effective patrols against illegal entry or illicit trade activities. Smuggling by Thai citizens and foraging raids into Thailand by Khmer Rouge troops soon became a major source of concern. In June 1979, Thailand began forced repatriation of more than 40,000 Cambodians, who were loaded into buses with a week’s supply of food each and taken back across the border.

In July representatives of fifty nations concerned about this forced repatriation met in Geneva, where they pledged increased aid and permanent asylum for more refugees. Under international pressure, Thailand revised its refugee policy in October 1979; although still considered illegal entrants, Cambodians would not automatically be intercepted but would be given every assistance possible as a matter of compassion. In November 1979, camps were opened near the border with Cambodia, and within 2 months 156,000 illegal immigrants were housed in them. The Thai military had assumed responsibility for another 149,000 Cambodians; there were also 113,000 at Khao-I-Dang and 28,400 at Sa Kaeo. The Ministry of Interior was responsible for the illegal immigrants in other camps.

Increased armed warfare along the Thai-Cambodian border disrupted the lives of the Thai citizens as well as Cambodian civilians. Hence, Thai military officials became more closely involved in refugee affairs and at times overruled or interfered with civilian government policies. Supporters of the People’s Republic of Kampuchea occasionally staged border attacks on refugee holding centers. In March 1984, Cambodian civilians encamped directly across from the Thai province of Sisaket were attacked; because of such activities, about 10,000 Cambodian civilians fled into Thailand. Between 1975 and February 1987, some 211,000 Cambodians were resettled abroad; this left about 22,000 in Khao-I-Dang, near the southeastern border city of Aranyaprathet in Prachin Buri Province, since all other camps for Cambodians had been officially closed. More than 100,000 remained at various sites along the border, however. The possibilities for resettlement remained unclear.

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In Thailand, the health authorities reported 21 new corona infections by the Centre for Covid-19 Situation Administration within 24 hours. Since the beginning of the pandemic, the CFCSA has counted a total of 3,998 infections with Sars-CoV-2 in Thailand. The number of deaths related to the virus rose 0 to a total of 60.

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