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WASHINGTON - U.S. Sen. Al Franken said he was unsatisfied with the access he received during his trip to Laos this week to observe the living conditions of 4,500 Hmong refugees who were forced from Thailand to Laos last December.
Franken took a helicopter tour of the houses being built in the village for the refugees, and he spoke to a group of about 150 Hmong. But the Minnesota Democrat said Lao officials prevented him from seeing the full scope of the living conditions at the Phonekham village.
"I was unhappy with the amount of access I had today and insisted that the [U.S.] ambassador have more access to the place so that he can see exactly what is going on in future visits," Franken said in a conference call from Vietnam.
About 46,000 Hmong immigrants live in Minnesota, the nation's highest per capita Hmong population. Some had relatives among the 4,500 Hmong who were repatriated from Thailand to Laos late last year. Since then Hmong Americans and human rights groups have expressed concern that Hmong refugees could be mistreated. They called for greater access and transparency from the Laotian government.
"It's unfortunate he was not given access because I think he could have been a really good ambassador," state Sen. Mee Moua said of Franken.
If Franken could have been a messenger back to Minnesota, Moua said, "for peace of mind for Minnesotans, that would be a really big deal."
Franken joined Sens. Tom Harkin, D-Iowa, and Bernie Sanders, I-Vt., on a trip to Vietnam, in part so he could go to Laos Tuesday. Franken was the only senator to travel to Laos.
The Hmong people, who helped the CIA during the Vietnam War, have a history of distrust with the Laotian government. After the war, they fled to Thailand to escape persecution from the Communist government, and most resettled in Laos or other countries, including the United States.
Of the Hmong moved to Laos in December, 158 were identified as political refugees by the United Nations. The United States has agreed to take 70 of those refugees, and Franken said Tuesday that he urged the Laotian government to let them leave the country.
From his helicopter tour, Franken saw houses the Laotian government is building for the repatriated refugees. He said they are each receiving several acres of land to farm.
In about a month, the Laotian foreign minister is coming to the United States to meet with Secretary of State Hillary Clinton. Franken said he will talk to Clinton before to "make sure this issue is high on her list" when she meets with Laotian officials.
Jeremy Herb • 202-408-2723