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(New York)— Thailand must end its crackdown on Burmese fleeing rights abuses in their military-ruled homeland, Human Rights Watch said in a report released today.

The report, Out of Sight, Out of Mind: Thai Policy toward Burmese Refugees and Migrants, documents Thailand’s repression of refugees, asylum seekers, and migrant workers from Burma. The Thai government is arresting and intimidating Burmese political activists living in Bangkok and along the Thai-Burmese border, harassing Burmese human rights and humanitarian groups, and deporting Burmese refugees, asylum seekers and others with a genuine fear of persecution in Burma.

The Thai government last month suspended screening of new refugee applicants from Burma by the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR). The decision—part of an apparent government effort to forge friendships with Burma’s military rulers—has suddenly thrown thousands of Burmese asylum seekers into legal and practical limbo. Refugee assistance agencies and human rights groups have been flooded with calls and visits by Burmese asylum seekers asking where to turn for protection.

“Thailand shouldn’t be toughening its stance towards Burmese refugees when there has been no improvement in the abysmal conditions causing them to flee Burma,” said Brad Adams, executive director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division. “Thailand should not allow commercial or diplomatic interests to interfere with the ability of Burmese to seek safety in Thailand.”

Ongoing abuses in Burma include forced labor, arrests for peaceful expression of political views, rape of ethnic minority women and children by government soldiers, conscription of child soldiers, and forced relocation of villages, Human Rights Watch said. Sporadic fighting continues in the border areas, despite recent discussions between Rangoon and one of the main rebel factions, the Karen National Union.

When—and if—screening of new Burmese asylum applications resumes, the Thai government will likely take on this crucial task. Because Thailand narrowly restricts its protection and assistance to “people fleeing fighting,” the government may start rejecting Burmese exiles and asylum seekers who are fleeing persecution for their pro-democracy activities in Burma. Those who are rejected would be classified as illegal immigrants and face the risk of being deported to Burma.

The Thai government announced plans last July to send all 4,000 Burmese refugees and asylum seekers living in Bangkok and other urban areas to border camps, despite the fact that many are fearful for their security because of cross-border violence as well as political and ethnic conflicts within the camps.

Thai authorities have also launched a fresh campaign to round up and deport thousands of Burmese migrant workers back to Burma. Many of the estimated one million Burmese migrant workers in Thailand fled their homeland for a mixture of political and economic reasons, and could face serious reprisals from the Burmese authorities if forced to return, Human Rights Watch said.

Thailand regularly expels as many as 10,000 Burmese migrants a month in “informal deportations” to Burma. While many are able to bribe their way back into Thailand, others have faced persecution or other ill-treatment by Burmese government soldiers and intelligence officials, and by some of the other ethnic-based armed groups operating along the border.

Under an agreement between the Thai government and Burma’s ruling State Peace and Development Council, Thailand also deports 400 “illegal” Burmese each month from the Immigration Detention Center in Bangkok to Burma—directly into a holding center operated by Burmese military intelligence. Those whom the UNHCR has recognized as refugees or asylum seekers are supposed to identify themselves as such at the detention center in order to avoid deportation, but human rights workers fear that many people fall through the cracks.

“Burmese refugees who support themselves as migrant workers in Thailand undoubtedly get caught up in these police sweeps,” said Adams. “Among those deported, many will face severe persecution once back in Burma. The Thai government’s crackdown puts the lives of many Burmese at risk.”

Human Rights Watch noted that under customary international law, the Thai government has an obligation not to return anyone to a country where his or her life or freedom is at risk.

“Thailand must not forcibly return any Burmese who may have a claim to refugee status,” Adams said. “Rather than expelling Burmese, sealing the border and refusing to protect new refugees, the Thai government should ensure that the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees is able to identify and protect those who have a fear of persecution in Burma.”

Thailand and the United States reached an agreement in January to resettle at least 4,000 of the 140,000 Burmese refugees in Thailand to the United States. Human Rights Watch said that this resettlement should help to improve the situation, so long as Thailand does not implement the agreement with the intention of making it harder for Burmese democracy activists to pursue their cause.

“While this agreement is welcome in principle, the U.S. government should make sure that Thailand does not now declare the refugee problem ‘solved,’ seal the border to new asylum seekers from Burma, and deepen its crackdown on undocumented Burmese migrants,” said Adams. “Those Burmese who choose not to resettle abroad should not be pressured or forced to return to Burma.”

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