Human Rights Watch has called on Thai authorities to release 181 ethnic-minority asylum seekers who were detained on Aug. 28 in Nonthaburi province on the outskirts of Bangkok. The detainees, who reportedly include more than 50 children, belong mostly to indigenous hilltribes from Vietnam and Cambodia popularly known by their French colonial designation as Montagnards ("people of the mountain"). "Thailand's frequent claims about improving refugee rights ring hollow when officials detain dozens of families who are protected under the mandate of the U.N. refugee agency," said Brad Adams
, Asia director for Human Rights Watch. "These Montagnards face harsh persecution
if they are returned to Cambodia and Vietnam, which Thailand should not do under any circumstances." The Montagnards, many of whom are Christian, have been seeking asylum in Thailand. Local authorities, however, routinely view refugees and asylum seekers from neighboring countries as illegal immigrants subject to arrest and deportation. The detainees are facing charges of entering Thailand illegally or staying in the country illegally, or both. "They are not illegal immigrants or illegal migrant workers. They are refugees and asylum seekers," said a Bangkok-based refugee advocate who asked to remain unnamed. "They shouldn't be detained. The Thai government should release them immediately." The Montagnards, many of whom belong to the Jarai minority
, tend to live in grinding poverty in their ancestral homelands in the Central Highlands of Vietnam and in Ratanakiri province in northeastern Cambodia. In recent years, many have fled from Vietnam to Cambodia and Thailand to escape religious persecution and discrimination. Yet in Cambodia too they often face discrimination, while in Thailand they are hardly welcomed with open arms. "Cambodia's ethnic Jarai population, many of whom are Christian, have faced land confiscation and intensifying government pressure after Vietnamese Jarai fled into Cambodia's Ratanakiri province," Human Rights Watch said. The rights group has quoted a detained Montagnard asylum seeker explaining the kind of treatment the detainees have received. "Many people [officials] come to me to ask why I came here, how I came here, and how much I paid," the asylum seeker was quoted as saying. "They asked who helped me to get the [U.N. refugee agency] card and how much I paid to get the card. Many people were asked about our journey to Thailand. A Thai person [plainclothes officer] said we are here illegally and have to comply with the law." Human Rights Watch has expressed special concern over the detention of dozens of refugee children with their parents. "Thailand is violating its international commitments by detaining over 50 children of refugees and asylum seekers," Adams said. "Their U.N. refugee status should ensure that none of these families are detained. Thai authorities should release them immediately."