By Kylie Morris - BBC, Phetchabun, Thailand
In a temporary camp in Phetchabun, northern Thailand, there is a constant
chorus of babies crying and children coughing.
Smoke rises from damp wood stacked under iron pots. It always seems to
have rained, or to be on the point of doing so.
The camp is home to a growing number of Hmong refugees, who started
arriving in the northern Thai province last year.
In recent months the numbers have grown to more than 5,000.
Children under five years old account for nearly half the hundreds who
have sought medical care, from the temporary clinic inside a nearby
The French aid agency Medicins Sans Frontieres has been distributing
medicines, as well as blankets, and plastic sheeting.
The stories of those living in the camp are mixed. Some have come from
settlements in other parts of Thailand - others directly from the jungles
If I had stayed there inside Laos, I would have died... and we wouldn't
survive a journey back
When we met her, Nankeh Siloh looked exhausted. She was waiting to see a
doctor because her baby Gao, whom she was carrying in her arms, had
diarrhoea and a bad cough.
She brought her two children to Phetchabun from Laos, and said that while
she was worried about conditions in the roadside camp without proper
sanitation and shelter, she had few other choices.
"If I had stayed there inside Laos, I would have died... and we wouldn't
survive a journey back," she said. "At least, I thought, if came here,
there's a chance our lives could improve."
Nankeh said she came to Thailand primarily because she had heard that the
Americans were taking in more Hmong refugees.
It's a rumour that was probably spread by opportunistic smugglers, keen to
take advantage of the Hmong's desperate situation inside Laos.
In the past 12 months, the United States agreed to resettle as many as
14,000 Hmong, most of whom had lived for years in temple grounds in Thailand.
During the Vietnam War, the Hmong were key allies of US forces. They
rescued downed American pilots and disrupted North Vietnamese supply lines.
But when the communists won, in Vietnam and in Laos, they found themselves
on the wrong side of history.
Many fled to neighbouring Thailand - but thousands remained, hiding in the
jungles, and living in fear of attacks by Lao government troops.
But now the Americans say they have no plans for any more mass
accommodation of the Hmong. The 5,000 who have arrived in Phetchabun
appear to have come too late.
The United Nations refugee agency, UNHCR, has asked that the Thai
authorities consider the Hmong political refugees, and process their
But the Thai army has made clear it wants to send them back - although
Major General Weerasak Manee-in said they would be screened to discover
who was at risk and who was an illegal immigrant.
"It's very difficult to tell them apart. Everyone claims that it's
dangerous for them to go back," he said.
"But if there are justified cases we'll consider them. We'll do our best
before we come to the point where we need to send them back."
Tongpai Yang is one of the refugees who is fervently hoping that never
happens to him.
He was a fighter in the jungles, and has scars of gunshot wounds to his
legs to prove it.
He said that, inside Laos, "many people were dying, and I realised we
couldn't go on living like this. I'd heard in Thailand the Hmong can live
more freely. That's why I decided to come".
For his family and fellow villagers, this journey has ended badly. Most
know that it is likely they will be forced to move on by the Thai authorities.
Their choices appear to be few.
"I am a man who has no rights and no land. I can only hope to stay here,
and wait for the Americans," said Tongpai Yang.