Several hundred thousand Hmong people took the treacherous voyage on foot through the Laotian countryside and across the Mekong River into Thailand in the two decades following the communist occupation in Laos in 1975. Awaiting them on the other side of the Mekong were rudimentary refugee camps: Nong Khai, Ban Vinai, Chiang Kham, and Ban Nam Yao. Ban Vinai and Chiang Kham camp consisted of mostly Hmong refugees.
The first group of an estimated 25,000 Hmong refugees reached Thailand in May of 1975. The first wave of refugees can be categorized as entering camps from 1975 to 1977. This group consisted mostly of soldiers and their families that fought against the communist during the war. The second wave last from 1978 to 1982. In the year 1979, there was an estimated 60,000 refugees residing in camps in Thailand with close to 3,000 Hmong crossing the Mekong monthly to find refuge in Thailand. During the third wave, from 1982 to 1986, the amount of Hmong refugees increased still.
Circumstances in the camps varied from barely tolerable to appalling. At the beginning, there were no toilets and no water for people wash themselves. The Hmong traditional way of life was to grow and harvest their food. There definitely was no land allotted for them to do so. There was also virtually no way to make money to purchase Hmong food either. The camp had grown to a size that it could no longer support by the mid-1980s. The Hmong refugee camps could no longer afford to offer somewhere to house its many thousands of inhabitants. In 1986 there was an estimated 43,000 to 45,000 people living on less than 1 square mile in Ban Vinai. Most families’ tradional way of life gave way to depending on what was handed out as rations at the camps. Because Hmong culture was so important to them, Hmong refugees still managed to create a culturally familiar way of life in these conditions. They still celebrated holidays such as the New Year. Children went to Thai elementary school and adults could attend English and vocational-training classes but Hmong language was still their number one language. Also, there were markets that sold fresh fish and fruit and herbal medicines.
By 1986 the average length of stay for a Hmong refugee was about seven years. More than 90% of Hmong refugees in Thailand had been accepted for passage to the United States because of their help in the war. The refugees that stayed in the camps instead of moving to a third country had their reasons. Some wanted to stay in the camps in hopes that they could return to Laos at a later date without suffering reprisals. Some were waiting for relatives to join them from Laos to resettle in a different country. Some refugees had heard back from friends or family about how difficult life was in the United States and so they were reluctant to make the move. Many Hmong had dreams of staying in Thailand and call it home.
The unwillingness of Hmong refugees to leave Thailand was of immense worry for the Thai government. Over the years the Thai had provided haven for up to 200,000 refugees but they had always let it be known that settling there was not an option. Though the arrival of Hmong refugees began to decline in later years, the populations in the camps continued growing due high birth rates. The Thai government developed a policy designed to encourage current refugees to move to the United States or return to Laos. They started to enforce strict border screenings for Hmong people wanting refuge in Thailand. They consolidated camps and developed more strict policies to control camp life. Thai authorities reduced food rations and limited work opportunities and education. Ban Vinai was closed eventually closed in 1992. The refugees still residing in Ban Vinai would be sent to a temporary camp to await their return to Laos. Thousands of Hmong refugees attempted to hide in the Northern plains and Thai countryside fearing the closure of Ban Vai.
In 1990, an estimated 90,000 Hmong refugees had moved the United States to restart their lives. Some also went to France, Canada, Australia, Argentine and French Guyana. Since then, and another estimated 60,000 have moved to these countries with a majority residing in the United States.