Human Rights Watch today urged the Thai government to take advantage of the final visit by the current United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees, Sadako Ogata, to Thailand to change its policies toward Burmese refugees. Ogata is visiting Bangkok on October 17 and 18.

Most refugees in Thailand are Burmese, and they're at risk of being sent back to Burma where they face persecution and human rights abuse," said Sidney Jones, Human Rights Watch's Asia director. "Mrs. Ogata's visit offers an ideal opportunity for the Thai government to show that it can and will offer protection to those who need it."

Human Rights Watch is calling on Thailand to:

Abide by its obligations under international law and stop all forcible returns of Burmese refugees to Burma.

Sign, ratify, and comply with the 1951 U.N. Convention relating to the

Status of Refugees and its 1967 Protocol. This international treaty sets forth the standards that the Thai government should use in determining refugee status and protecting refugees on its territory, and Mrs. Ogata's visit would be the perfect time for Thailand to agree to sign.

Allow UNHCR a stronger role in monitoring refugee status determination procedures in Thailand to ensure that no refugee is returned to a country where he or she could face persecution.

Thailand, traditionally generous toward refugees from the region, took a hard line against Burmese refugees, after two incidents in which armed Burmese held civilians hostage. In October 1999, five Burmese gunmen seized the Burmese Embassy in Bangkok; in January, another group of armed men occupied the Ratchaburi provincial hospital. As a result, Thai authorities decided that all Burmese asylum seekers would be moved to camps along the border, and, among new arrivals, only those fleeing fighting would be allowed to stay in Thailand. All others would be classified as illegal immigrants and would be forcibly repatriated to Burma. Admission boards set up by Thai officials in the provinces would determine who among newly arriving asylum-seekers could stay, but some in the government demanded that all Burmese, refugees or not, be sent home within three years.

On June 12, over one hundred refugees, some of whom had never had their cases reviewed by the provincial admission board, were forced back from Don Yang refugee camp to Burma and on August 17 another one hundred persons from Nu Pho camp were returned to Burma.

Thailand is currently providing shelter in camps to some 120,000 Burmese refugees.