Tuesday, August 21, 2007

Hmong End Hunger Strike

It's good to see the world BEGINNING to notice the plight of the Hmong in Laos. Maybe someday they'll notice the plight of the Karens and everyone else there.

UN: Hmong refugees in Thai jail end hunger strike

A group of ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos have called off a hunger strike at a jail in northeastern Thailand, but are still being held in dire conditions, the U.N. refugee agency said, urging the Thai government to release them.

The 149 refugees - who began their strike on Thursday to protest the harsh conditions in which they are being held by immigration police in Nong Khai, 310 miles northeast of Bangkok - are all recognized refugees and should be released, said the U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees.

"We are alarmed and deeply concerned about the steadily deteriorating detention conditions of the refugees over the last weeks," said Janet Lim, who heads the agency's Asia and Pacific bureau. "They are being held in truly inhumane conditions - including innocent children."

The group includes 90 children. Some babies were born in detention.

The refugees are crammed into two windowless cells and are forbidden to go out, UNHCR said. Their sole source of water comes from a bathroom, it said.

Amnesty International said it had "grave concerns for their welfare, particularly as more than half of them are children and some are already suffering from health problems."

They have been held at the center since January.

"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 said in a statement.

The Hmong say they fear political persecution in Laos. Many Hmong fought on the side of a pro-U.S. Laotian government in the 1960s and 1970s before the communist takeover of their country in 1975.

More than 300,000 Laotians, mostly Hmong, fled to Thailand after the takeover. Most were resettled in third countries, particularly the United States, though several thousand were voluntarily repatriated back home. Several thousand continue to hide out in the jungles of Laos, where they are hunted down by the military.

Thailand asserts that the Hmong are not legitimate refugees, and have violated Thai law by entering the country illegally. Thai authorities have deported more than 300 of them over the past year.

The 149 Hmong in Nong Khai were on the verge of being repatriated to Laos in January when international pressure halted the move.

The UNHCR said the group had committed no crime and needed protection.

"We appreciate the assurances given by the Thai government that these 149 will not be deported," Lim said, but added that "now we need to move forward to end their detention, particularly as there is a solution at hand."