(New York) - The Thai government should not forcibly repatriate thousands of Lao Hmong refugees currently detained in Thailand to likely persecution in Laos, Human Rights Watch said today. The Thai-Lao border committee will meet from September 2-4 to decide the fate of Hmong refugees at a camp in Petchabun province.

“It is shocking that Thailand is even considering the return of refugees fleeing from political persecution, rights abuses and fighting in Laos,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “The Thai government’s threatened return of the Lao Hmong refugees shows a brazen contempt for the most basic principle of refugee law.”

The Thai government should accept offers from other countries to resettle some Hmong refugees and to allow other refugees to remain in Thailand until their cases can be resolved. Human Rights Watch is particularly concerned because of previous forced repatriations by the Thai government earlier this year, and because of the statement on August 16 by the Lao Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Yong Chanthalangsy rejecting the idea of independent monitoring of repatriations to Laos, claiming it was a bilateral issue between Thailand and Laos. Human Rights Watch has received credible reports of abuse and detention of individuals repatriated to Laos from Thailand in the past.

Thailand has a long history of providing sanctuary for Hmong refugees fleeing political persecution. But in May of this year, the government pressured the office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) to stop conducting refugee status determinations in Thailand. This has put thousands of Hmong asylum seekers in limbo and limited the protection provided by UNHCR. The suspension of refugee status determinations allows the Thai authorities to summarily classify Lao Hmong asylum seekers as “illegal migrants,” making them subject to arrest, detention and deportation.

In May, senior military officers from Thailand and Laos signed the Lao-Thai Committee on Border Security agreement, allowing Thailand to send Lao Hmong asylum seekers back upon arrival. In late May, Thailand repatriated 31 Hmong to Laos. On June 9, 163 Hmong asylum seekers were rounded up and forcibly driven back over the border. No international human rights organizations have access to them.

In early August, Thai Prime Minister Gen. Surayud Chulanont made his government’s position clear when he stated that Lao Hmong asylum seekers could become a “never-ending problem.” On August 6 he said, “If we don’t deal with this problem, we will have to be home to more illegal immigrants. It is a burden in every way for us.”

The majority of Lao Hmong asylum seekers – about 8,000 – have been held since late June in an enclosed camp in Petchabun province surrounded by barbed wire and armed soldiers. At present, outside access is limited to one relief agency, Medicins San Frontieres, which is currently supplying food, water, sanitation, and medical services to the refugees. Residents of the camp have no freedom of movement and must carry identity cards everywhere. They have little to do and very few ways to make a living. The number of children in the camp is rising rapidly; by some estimates children under the age of five make up 25 percent of the total camp population. Despite the prevalence of children, the camp authorities provide them with no educational facilities, and because they cannot leave they have no access to schools in the surrounding villages. Thai authorities are not allowing foreign embassies to interview Hmong refugees in the camp for resettlement. In July, Human Rights Watch attempted to enter this camp and speak with refugees, but was denied access by camp officials.

Hmong are targeted by the Lao authorities because of a decades-long Hmong insurgency. The Lao authorities and security forces have been responsible for torture, arbitrary detentions, sexual violence and extrajudicial killings of ethnic Lao Hmong suspected of involvement in insurgency or other anti-government activities.

In returning refugees to Laos earlier this year and considering the return of more now, Thailand is ignoring one of the most basic principles of international law – the principle of non-refoulement. Non-refoulement means that governments must not send people fleeing persecution back to countries where their lives or liberty would be threatened. While Thailand is not a party to the 1951 Convention Relating to the Status of Refugees or its 1967 Protocol, under customary international law the Thai government has an obligation of non-refoulement.

“We urge Prime Minister Surayud to rethink his position,” said Adams. “He risks sullying his reputation and damaging his relationships with the international community to appease a government in Laos that routinely mistreats its own citizens.”

Human Rights Watch also expressed grave concern about a group of 149 UNHCR-recognized Lao Hmong refugees, including 77 children and nine infants, currently detained in the Immigration Detention Center in Nong Khai province. In January, a deportation attempt was aborted after male refugees locked themselves inside a building and threatened to commit suicide. UNHCR and many embassies intervened, convincing the government to back down.

However, the Thai authorities retaliated by making conditions in the detention facility intolerable. Refugees have been crammed into two small cells without natural light. They are held under near-constant lockdown, and told by the Thai authorities they will never be released. Parents have been separated from children. For a period of time, the Thai authorities confiscated all their clothing, mosquito nets and blankets. Refugees are not even allowed to wash their clothes inside their cells. The only source of drinking water is from their bath trough. With no means to boil water, many of the refugees, including young children, have become very sick. On August 16, a group of refugees staged a hunger strike to protest their detention and their conditions.

The United States, Australia, Canada and the Netherlands have offered resettlement places to the 149 Lao Hmong refugees in Nong Khai. But the Thai authorities have refused to allow them to leave.

“The 149 Hmong refugees are apparently victims of Thailand’s policy to use their suffering to discourage more asylum seekers from Laos,” said Adams. “This policy is legally and morally indefensible.”