Ninety-two children are among a group of 158 Lao Hmong refugees who have been held at a detention centre in Thailand for two years.
Living in harsh conditions, the refugees are constantly in fear of being forcibly returned to Laos, where they are at risk of serious human rights violations. For 21 hours a day, they are locked inside the building where they live in overcrowded, windowless cells. Some have gone on hunger strike or threatened to commit suicide in protest against their detention.
Many of the refugees are in poor health. The children, including 11 infants who were born into detention, are particularly badly affected by the difficult living conditions. Many of them are in bad health. Medical workers have only recently been allowed access to the detention centre.
The detainees had fled persecution in Laos. They were arrested in November 2006 in Bangkok and in Phetchabun, northern Thailand, despite having been recognized as refugees by the UN refugee agency (UNHCR). They are being held at the Immigration Detention Center (IDC) in Nong Khai, northern Thailand.
The Thai authorities tried to forcibly return the refugees to Laos in January 2007. They forced women and children onto buses and drove them to the Lao border as the men barricaded themselves into their cells.
Plans to forcibly return the refugees were abandoned following an international outcry from other governments, UNHCR and non-governmental organizations (NGOs), including Amnesty International.
A high ranking representative of the Thai army visited the centre on 10 April 2008 and told the group that they would be sent to Laos. Threats such as this have added to the group's desperation and fear.
"The refugees told Amnesty International that officials have threatened to forcibly return of all of them to Laos --as collective punishment-- if anyone would try to escape from the detention centre or if any of the women would get pregnant. Such threats add to the fear in which the refugees live, said Brittis Edman, Southeast Asia researcher.
The governments of Australia, Canada, the Netherlands and the USA have pledged to consider allowing the group to resettle in their countries.
UNHCR representatives were unable to gain access to the group since August 2007. However, once a month for the last few months, the UNHCR has been allowed to meet the group in a training room within the IDC. Here they talk about their resettlement and release although so far the Thai authorities have shown no sign of permitting the group to leave.
Fears that the refugees will never be allowed to leave have been fuelled by the construction of an extension to the back of the building where they are being held. The extension has no doors or windows and is only accessible through the existing building. The refugees fear that, once the extension is complete, they will not be allowed outside at all.
The Hmong are one of many ethnic groups in Laos. Although most Hmong are integrated into mainstream society, communities have lived in isolated pockets in the jungle since the Vietnam War ended in 1975. Faced with violent attacks by the Lao army, which still regards them as members of a decades-old armed resistance force, they have lived in hiding from the authorities. Most Hmong refugees and asylum-seekers in Thailand claim to have some connection to these isolated groups.
There are thousands of ethnic Hmong Lao people in Thailand. An estimated 6,500 people, including asylum-seekers, have been living in a camp in Phetchabun since 2004. In 2007, the Thai government agreed with the Lao authorities to send them back to Laos – including those whose asylum claims have not been assessed in fair and satisfactory procedures.
Over 1,500 people were "repatriated" to Laos between February and September 2008. Some were apparently forcibly returned, including a mother whose children were left behind at the camp. Since December 2005, over 2,000 Lao Hmong, including an unknown number of asylum-seekers, have been sent back to Laos where some were arbitrarily detained and tortured.
Amnesty International has voiced its concern that many of the Lao Hmong in Thailand are at risk of serious human rights violations if they are forcibly returned to Laos. Many of those already returned were sent to designated Hmong villages after "re-education".
The Lao authorities have arranged several visits to these reintegration villages for diplomats and journalists, but UN agencies and human rights NGOs have limited access to the sites and the whereabouts of most returnees are not known.
"Amnesty International calls on the Thai authorities to immediately release the 158 Lao Hmong refugees from this unlawful detention and allow preparations for resettlement in third countries to take place as a matter of urgency," said Donna Guest, Amnesty International's Asia-Pacific Deputy Director.