20 August 2007Voicing relief that 149 Hmong refugees from Laos held in a detention centre in Thailand had ended a hunger strike, the United Nations refugee agency today called on the Thai Government to release them, all recognized refugees. Voicing relief that 149 Hmong refugees from Laos held in a detention centre in Thailand had ended a hunger strike, the United Nations refugee agency today called on the Thai Government to release them, all recognized refugees. “We are alarmed and deeply concerned about the steadily deteriorating detention conditions of the refugees over the last weeks,” UN High Commissioner for Refugees (UNHCR) Bureau for Asia and the Pacific Director Janet Lim said. “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,” she added. They also have no water source other than a tap in the cells. The Lao Hmong began their strike on Thursday at the Nong Khai Immigration Detention Centre in a protest over the deteriorating conditions under which they have been held since early December. After a UNHCR team visited and counseled them on Sunday evening, they began taking food again. Among the 149 recognized refugees are 90 children, including some babies born in the centre which is run by the Thai Immigration Ministry. “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,” Ms. Lim said. “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 in November. After UNHCR intervened, the deportation was called off and the group was transferred to the Nong Khai detention centre on the border with Laos. Thai authorities attempted to deport them in January 2007, but backed down when the refugees put up fierce resistance. Since then, UNHCR has been urging the authorities to release them. “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,” Ms. 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.The agency 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.
The move, facilitated by United Nations Children’s Fund (UNICEF), follows the release of 300 children by armed groups in early February.“No child should ever have to pick up a weapon and fight” said Mahimbo Mdoe, the head of UNICEF programmes in the country.“For every child released, today marks the start of a new life,” he said. “We are proud to support these children as they return to their families and start to build a brighter future.”But officials also noted that thousands more children remain in the hands of armed groups in South Sudan, in violation of international law. This week’s discharge took place in Bakiwiri, a rural community in Western Equatoria state.The children will now undergo medical screenings and receive counselling and psychosocial support as part of the reintegration programme, said UNICEF. Once home, they will also have access to vocational training as well as age-specific education services in schools and accelerated learning centres.Their families will also be provided with three months’ worth of food assistance to support reintegration.Those discharged – 112 boys, 95 girls – were from the South Sudan National Liberation Movement and Sudan People’s Liberation Army-In Opposition.Finding happiness after traumaThe children, scarred by what they were made to do in the armed groups and what they saw, were happy to be going home.“They [the armed group] found us on the way when we were going to the garden. They killed my father and kidnapped us…” said a 16-year-old, recalling hardship and torture for not being able to cook and clean properly.Another child, a 17-year-old, said that they were made to loot and witness “terrible things” that traumatized them.“I am happy to come back home,” said the child.Families, too, were ecstatic.“I am so happy with the Government and those who brought peace to Yambio because today my three children are going to be released to stay with me at home […] I am grateful to UNICEF and also those who made it possible for the release of the children,” said a mother.About 19,000 children still remain in armed groupsHowever, despite this release, and the one before it, there are still about19,000 children in use by armed forces and groups in South Sudan. And with conflict lingering in the world’s youngest nation, the risk that children will be used in fighting remains.“So long as the recruitment and use of children by armed groups continues, these groups fail on their commitment to uphold the rights of children under international law,” underscored UNICEF.As peace talks resume, the UN agency has called on all parties to the conflict to end the use of children and to release all children in their ranks.Since gaining independence in 2011, South Sudan has spent much of its short life mired in conflict, as what began as a political face-off between President Salva Kiir and former Vice-President Riek Machar erupted into full-blown war late in 2013.