Earlier this month, I walked through the marketplace at the Phonekam development village in Laos, with Ambassador Karen Stewart and several colleagues from U.S. Embassy Vientiane. As we observed residents going about their shopping, a young family with two small, well-fed children smiled at the embassy's delegation before driving off with their purchases on their own motorcycle. An amazing variety of items can be purchased at the market: TVs, nails, flashlights, clothes, shoes, hats, fruit, and more. We spoke to two shopkeepers, who can travel daily by bus to the provincial capital to purchase inventory. Ambassador Stewart noted the increase in livestock -- including roosters, chickens, goats, huge pigs and little piglets -- for sale at the market, compared with her last visit.
In December 2009, approximately 4,500 Hmong who had sought refuge in Thailand were forcibly returned to Laos, and since then the U.S. government has conducted periodic visits to the Phonekham development village in Bolikhamsay Province, where they now reside. Our visits are used to monitor conditions -- such as what we saw in the marketplace -- and help build trust between the Hmong returnees and the Lao Government. We also look to ensure human rights are respected and protected.
Working through the International Organization for Migration (IOM), the U.S. government agreed to support health and medical needs, ambulances for clinics and hospitals, mini-tractors for agricultural production, and school construction for the Lao Hmong returnees and local residents of the surrounding communities. To date, 94 mini-tractors, medical equipment and supplies, and ambulances for the clinics and hospitals have been delivered to help address livelihood and health needs of the Hmong returnees. Additionally, the U.S. government is providing computer equipment for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs Office for Overseas Lao Affairs to enhance communication with the Hmong Diaspora.
On May 14, 2012, on the day our embassy delegation visited the marketplace at Phonekham, Ambassador Stewart participated in a handover ceremony of four ambulances to benefit the Hmong villagers not only in Phonekam, but also in Palak and Nongsan, two older development villages serving Hmong returnees. This delivery represents the third tranche of assistance under the IOM-implemented project supported by the State Department. In Phonekam, a local villager shared that the clinic is properly supplied, with patients filling beds and staff attending to business. The ambulances will help ensure that villagers reach district hospitals quickly for emergency care and treatment of life-threatening illness. They will also encourage expectant mothers to deliver their babies in clinics rather than at home by providing transportation to the village health centers -- part of a strategy to improve mother/child health and decrease infant and maternal mortality.
The villagers also reported that water for irrigation is adequate but slow due to small pipes. The Lao government has provided some assistance to the Hmong returnees since January 2010 and the rice crop is sufficient. Last year, the farmers started to grow and sell cassava, which can be quite lucrative in the Lao market. The villagers are currently testing corn and plan to further diversify crops if successful. The seeds of hope have been planted, and we are encouraged that substantive dialogue towards reconciliation and national development will continue between the Lao government and the Hmong returnees.
Continue the conversation on the Bureau of Population, Refugees, and Migration's Facebook page.