The Refugee Population

The Refugee Population

During the Second Indochina War (1954-75), particularly between 1960 and 1973, large numbers of Laotians were displaced from their villages, either to escape frequent bombings or as a result of forced relocations by one side or the other seeking to consolidate control over an area. In the eastern zone controlled by the Pathet Lao, many villages were abandoned, and the inhabitants either lived in caves, fled across the border to Vietnam (where, despite the massive United States aerial war, the bombing was less intense than in the areas to which they moved), or moved to refugee villages or camps in Royal Lao Government (RLG) areas. These villages were established along Route 13 from Savannakhét to Pakxan and continued north of Vientiane. In addition, many Hmong and Mien villages that had allied with the RLG were frequently forced to move as a result of the changing battle lines and were regularly supplied by the RLG and United States.

At the end, an estimated 700,000 persons, or about 25 percent of the population, were in some way displaced from their original homes. Many of these refugees began to return to their villages, or at least to the same general area, after the cease-fire of 1973, emptying many of the refugee villages along Route 13. The United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR provided some assistance in transportation and initial rice supplies, and after 1975 the government also assisted to the extent possible with its meager resources. Hmong who sided with the RLG were forced to flee after 1975.

Not all internal refugees returned to their home districts, however. Some chose to remain in more populated areas near the Mekong and the larger towns, continuing to farm land that they had cleared during the war. The fall of the RLG and increased control by government cadres over daily activities in the villages also caused many villagers to flee the country, ending up in refugee camps in Thailand. The outmigration occurred in three phases. An initial flight of RLG officials and Westernized elite began in 1975. A second period of departures by many more ordinary villagers occurred between 1977 and 1981, responding as much to economic hardship caused by poor weather and government mismanagement of the agricultural sector than to political control measures. A later period of less rapid departure lasted through the late 1980s. In all, more than 360,000 Laotians--about 10 percent or more of the population--fled the country between 1975 and 1992. This group included nearly all Western-educated Laotians, and, as political scientist Martin Stuart-Fox has noted, the loss of the intelligentsia may have set the country back an entire generation. Some upland minorities who had supported the RLG and the United States military effort also fled immediately, while other groups continued a guerrilla insurgency, which was not brought under control until after about 1979.

By the end of 1992, approximately 305,000 Laotian refugees had been permanently resettled in third countries, most commonly in the United States and France. Forty thousand Laotians--mostly Hmong-- remained in refugee camps in Thailand, and 12,000 refugees had been voluntarily repatriated to Laos under the supervision and with the assistance of the UNHCR. International agreements mandated the resettlement or repatriation of all remaining refugees in Thailand by the end of 1994.

Even without the circumstances of war, Laotian villagers traditionally have moved in search of better prospects. Because of the overall low population density, if farmland near a village became scarce or its quality declined, part or all of a village might decide to relocate where there was more potential. This pattern occurs more frequently among upland semimigratory peoples where there is a regular pattern of movement linked to the use of swidden fields, but even the lowland Lao have a history of village fragmentation in search of new lands although their investment in household or village infrastructure has tended to stabilize the population. Since the mid-1980s, the government has encouraged or compelled a number of upland villages farming swidden rice to resettle in lowland environments--a pattern also used by the RLG to more easily control villagers. In some instances, assistance in relocation and initial land clearing has been provided, while in others people have been left to fend for themselves in their new locations.

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