UNHCR calls for Lao Hmong refugees to be released after hunger strike

Monday 20 August, 2007

GENEVA - The UN refugee agency is relieved that 149 Hmong refugees held in a detention centre in Thailand have now called off their hunger strike, but the agency remains alarmed at their living conditions and their health and well-being. UNHCR calls on the Thai government to release them - all recognized refugees - from detention.

The Lao Hmong began their strike last Thursday at the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre in a protest over the deteriorating conditions under which they have been held since early December last year. After a UNHCR team visited and counselled them on Sunday evening, they began taking food again. Among the 149 recognized refugees are 90 children, including some babies born in the detention centre which is run by the Thai Immigration Ministry.

"We are alarmed and deeply concerned about the steadily deteriorating detention conditions of the refugees over the last weeks," said Janet Lim, Director of UNHCR's Bureau for Asia and the Pacific. "They are being held in truly inhumane conditions - including innocent children - confined to two small cells into which daylight does not even shine and they are not allowed to leave." They also have no water source other than a water tap in the cells.

"There is absolutely no reason for these 149 people to be detained, especially as other countries have come forward and offered them resettlement places if they are only allowed to leave Thailand," Lim added. "They have committed no crime; on the contrary, they have been recognized as refugees in need of international protection. It is particularly disturbing to us that young children and babies are being subjected to these deplorable conditions."

The group was rounded up for deportation in Bangkok on 17 November 2006. After UNHCR intervened, the deportation was called off and the group was transferred on 8 December to the Nong Khai detention centre on the border with Laos. Thai authorities attempted to deport them on 30 January 2007, but backed down when the refugees put up fierce resistance.

Since then, UNHCR has been urging Thai authorities to release the refugees. "We appreciate the assurances given by the Thai government that these 149 will not be deported, but now we need to move forward to end their detention, particularly as there is a solution at hand," Lim said.

UNHCR is also concerned about conditions faced by other asylum seekers and refugees in detention in Thailand, particularly as children are also in custody.

UNHCR continues to urge the Thai Government to conclude its discussions on a screening mechanism which meets international standards that would allow the proper identification of different needs and claims concerning all asylum seekers on its territory.