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
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.
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
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.
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.
Related sites: Note: Pages will open in a new browser window
External sites are not endorsed by CNN Interactive.
© 1997 Cable News Network, Inc.
All Rights Reserved.