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Rights Groups Fear Protests in Thailand Refugee Camps

There are growing fears of protests inside Lao-Hmong refugee camps in Thailand, following confirmation by the new Thai government it will repatriate thousands of Hmong held in camps for almost two years. Fresh appeals are being made by the United Nations and rights groups for greater "transparency" in the repatriation process.

Thailand's plan to repatriate 5,000 Lao-Hmong refugees is causing concern that violence last year in the Huay Nam Khao camp could be repeated. The Hmong people are one of several major tribal groups in Laos.

Human Rights Watch representative Sunai Phasuk, said confirmation of the repatriation program follows recent visits to Laos by Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva and Foreign Minister Kasit Piromya.

Mr. Abhisit says a Joint Border Committee of the two countries military would oversee the Hmong repatriation.

"It is very clear that the government of Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva has reaffirmed its commitment of Thailand to repatriate Lao Hmong back to Laos, regardless of the lack of transparency inside Laos as to the point that we do not know what happens to the returnees after they cross the Thai-Lao border," Sunai said.

Last June, refugee protests against repatriation plans led to the torching of half the camp and the Thai military halted a protest march. Afterward, 800 protesters were forcibly repatriated to Laos, while thousands were sent back to the camp.

Sunai says there there again could be "resistance" and protests among the refugees, which he fears may be met with a "heavy handed" response from the Thai military.

"It is a real tragedy that the Thai military failed to understand this natural fear of the Lao Hmong and instead respond with heavy handed suppression," he said.

The repatriation plan calls for sending all the refugees back to Laos by year's end.

Human-rights groups and the U.N. High Commission for Refugees have also raised concern for 158 Hmong held at an immigration detention center in Nong Khai. UNHCR spokesperson Kitty McKinsey says the United Nations is calling for the detainees to be released.

"Our position about the 158 Hmong who are in detention in Nong Khai - we continue to press for them to be released from custody because there is no reason for them to be kept in detention," says McKinsey.

Human rights group Amnesty International has called for the Thai government to "reconsider" the decision to return the Lao Hmong until they have been granted access to a "full and fair" asylum procedure.

Thailand and Laos say the current refugees are economic migrants, not victims of political persecution.

During the Vietnam War, the Hmong fought alongside United States forces. After the war was over in 1975, many were forced to flee Laos with thousands crossing into Thailand. Since then many have been granted residence in the United States., Australia and other countries.