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(New York) - The Thai government should immediately end the detention of 158 Lao Hmong refugees held in poor and abusive conditions for three years, Human Rights Watch said today in a letter to Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva.

Human Rights Watch urged the government to cease its mistreatment of the Lao Hmong refugees and to permit them to resettle in Thailand or in countries that have already agreed to take them.

"Thai authorities have kept Lao Hmong refugees in fear and uncertainty for years to pressure them into giving up hope of refuge in Thailand or resettlement elsewhere," said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. "The government should immediately end this immoral and unlawful policy."

In violation of international refugee law, the Thai government has used intimidation and the denial of basic necessities to coerce Lao Hmong refugees in a Nong Khai immigration detention center to return to Laos "voluntarily." Thai authorities restricted all of the refugees to two small cells, deprived them of adequate light, separated parents from their children, denied them mosquito nets and clean clothing, and cut off access to clean water and proper sanitation facilities.

The United States, Canada, the Netherlands, and Australia have already made commitments to accept these 158 refugees. Thai authorities should allow them to leave for resettlement abroad without further delay, Human Rights Watch said.

Laos continues to persecute Hmong communities because of a Hmong insurgency that dates back to the 1960s. In recent decades, Lao security forces have been responsible for arrests, torture, sexual abuse, and extrajudicial killings of Hmong living in areas of Laos suspected to be insurgency regions.

In the letter, Human Rights Watch also raised concern about the situation of 5,000 Lao Hmong currently detained in Huay Nam Khao Camp in Petchabun, who will be subject to deportation as a result of an agreement between the governments of Thailand and Laos.

At best, when Hmong asylum seekers and refugees arrive in Laos after deportation, Lao authorities prohibit return to their homes and force them to stay in relocation sites or with relatives in government-friendly villages. At worst, Hmong deportees face arbitrary incarceration, sexual abuse, torture, and disappearance.

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 nonrefoulement (non-return) of persons to places where their life or freedom is at risk.

Human Rights Watch asked the Thai government to guarantee that all Lao Hmong in Huay Nam Khao Camp have access to screening and status determination procedures if they wish to make an asylum claim, prior to deportation or forced return.

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