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Laotian refugees to leave Thailand after 20 years in camp


January 20, 1997
Web posted at: 3:15 p.m. EST (2015 GMT)

From Bangkok Bureau Chief Tom Mintier

NAKHON PHANOM, Thailand (CNN) -- When the war in Southeast Asia ended in 1975, there were nearly 50,000 Laotian refugees in the Na Pho refugee camp in northeastern Thailand. Now, more than 20 years later, about 2,000 of them remain.

Life in the camp has changed little in the last two decades. A third generation is learning how to be refugees. They refuse to return to Laos and have not been accepted for resettlement in the United States, where they had hoped to migrate. But life for those refugees is about to change drastically.


Under an agreement between Thailand, Laos and the United States, the camp is scheduled to close by the end of June. The closure is a necessity in order for Laos to be admitted into the Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN).

Only a few of those who fled the communist takeover of Laos are still being accepted for resettlement in the United States. Many have been refused because they still use the opium they once cultivated in the mountains of Laos.

As time passed, some of the camp's families made the decision to return to Laos. In 1994, more than 5,000 returned, and in 1995, the number was half of that. But last year, only nine people went home after rumors spread that the United States would reconsider their cases. Most of those remaining are from hill tribes who fought against the communists, and are afraid to return.

Rice distribution

Sai Da Wang, who says he was a soldier at 15 and a refugee at 21, has lived at the Na Pho camp since 1975. One of his sons has resettled in California, and Sai is eligible to live there, but won't go. Uneducated, he fears he would be a burden for his son, and returning to Laos is out of the question.

Life at the Na Pho camp is on a strict schedule. Every Thursday, each adult is given three and a half kilos of rice for the week. Most of the rice has been donated by the European Union, and stockpiles are now low with the anticipated closing of this camp.

There is no luxury in this camp. Only the basic needs are provided -- food and shelter.

It is a place where people continue living in the past. Rotting buildings and open sewers are here, as they have been for more than two decades.

Empty chairs

Like Cambodian and Vietnamese refugees before them, their time to stay is nearly over. Governments like Thailand's are eager to put the reminders of war behind them. Negotiations are now about business.

One of the most striking images in the Na Pho camp is something that will never leave -- airline seats, initially brought to the camp to prepare the refugees for what to expect on their hoped-for trip to the United States.

They are no longer used except for children to play on, but serve as a constant reminder for the refugees still stuck here of what might have been.


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