Rights groups alarmed over Thai detention of asylum seekers

Human rights groups expressed alarm Thursday at Thailand's detention of more than 160 asylum seekers from hill tribe ethnic minorities in Vietnam and Cambodia, saying they face possible persecution if returned to their homelands.

Thai and international rights groups said the asylum seekers were rounded up Tuesday in a northern suburb of Bangkok and charged with immigration law violations.

The Thai group Human Rights Lawyers Association said some had cards from the U.N. refugee agency identifying them as having been certified as refugees. The group said the detainees, from the Jarai and other minorities, "fled persecution, discrimination and repression" in Vietnam and Cambodia.

Many hill tribe minorities — often collectively called "Montagnards"— aligned themselves closely with the U.S. military during the Vietnam War, and were treated with suspicion and repression by Communist victors after the war. Some groups' identification as Christians continues to put them at odds with the ruling Communist authorities in Vietnam, and occasional unrest in their Central Highlands homeland always triggers sharp crackdowns.

Puttanee Kangkun, a human rights worker with the group Fortify Rights, said the 38 detainees from Cambodia could be sent directly back under a bilateral agreement, but there is no such agreement with Vietnam, which means the other detainees must face trial before any further action against them is considered. They were tried and found guilty Thursday, Puttanee said. Those unable to pay fines could be detained indefinitely.

She said officials from Thailand's Ministry of Social Development and Human Security had separated children from their parents in the arrested group to be cared for outside of detention centers until their parents are released.

The Human Rights Lawyers Association said that although Thailand is not part of the United Nation's 1951 Refugee Convention, it is still responsible under customary international law to not send back refugees who risk harassment or abuse, a practice known as "non-refoulement."

Thailand generally has a history of tolerance toward asylum seekers in a region where unrest has led many in neighboring countries to seek refuge from war and unrest. However, political considerations, especially connected to foreign policy, sometimes result in hard-line actions, most notably in recent decades with the forced repatriation of ethnic Hmong to Laos and Muslim Uighurs to China.