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

Press Releases, 20 August 2007

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.

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Angelina Jolie revisits Myanmar refugees on World Refugee Day

UNHCR's Special Envoy Angelina Jolie spent this year's World Refugee Day with Karenni refugees from Myanmar. Some have been in exile in Thailand for 30 years, making this one of the longest-running refugee situations in the world.

On her fourth visit to the refugee camps in Thailand, Jolie met Baw Meh's family, three generations of refugees who have lived in Ban Mai Nai Soi camp since 1996.

The family told Jolie they fled Myanmar's Kayah state thinking they would return home shortly. Eighteen years later, they are still here. Baw Meh, 75, lost her husband last year. He died before he could fulfill his dream of returning home. Some of their family members have been resettled to third countries. Others have chosen to stay. Baw Meh has refused to go, preferring to stay close to her village.

Like many refugees along the border, her family is watching the reform process in Myanmar closely and mulling the prospect of eventual return. "After 30 years in exile, the best solution we can give these refugees is the right and power to choose their own way forward," said Jolie. "This is our chance to get it right, to break the vicious cycle of conflict and displacement once and for all."

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Refugees from Myanmar: Ethnic Karens Seek Shelter

Over 2,000 refugees from Myanmar have crossed the border into Thailand in recent months. Most claim to be fleeing renewed conflict and human rights abuses in Kayin state, Myanmar. The mainly ethnic Karen refugees say their houses and villages have been burned and civilians killed. Many were weak upon arrival, suffering from illnesses such as malaria, after a long, dangerous journey to the camps through heavily mined areas. The refugees have been arriving at government-run camps, mainly in the Mae Hong Son area in northern Thailand.

UNHCR is working with the Thai government and non-governmental organisations to ensure the new arrivals are admitted to the camps and provided with adequate shelter and protection. Shelter has been a major issue as the capacity in many refugee camps has been overwhelmed. In a breakthrough in mid-May, Thai authorities agreed to build proper houses for the new arrivals.

There are currently 140,000 refugees from Myanmar living in nine border camps in Thailand, many of them have been there for up to 20 years.

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