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Senators urge U.S. to help Hmong refugees in Thailand

By Frederic J. Frommer

Associated Press

WASHINGTON — Senators from Wisconsin, Minnesota and California are urging the State Department to take action to protect a group of Hmong refugees being held at an immigration detention center in Thailand.

The six senators wrote to Secretary of State Condoleezza Rice about the roughly 150 Hmong refugees who have been held for 10 months at Nong Khai, 310 miles northeast of Bangkok.

"As longtime advocates for the Hmong, it is our hope that the United States will remain a leader in seeking protection and assistance for the detainees in Nong Khai," they wrote. "We urge you to continue pressing the Thai government to provide better living conditions for these detainees, and to ultimately bring about a swift resolution to this ongoing problem."

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The State Department said it had not yet seen the letter and could not comment.

The letter was signed by Wisconsin Democrats Russ Feingold and Herb Kohl, California Democrats Dianne Feinstein and Barbara Boxer, Minnesota Democrat Amy Klobuchar and Minnesota Republican Norm Coleman.

The Hmong are an ethnic group from Laos who fought alongside the U.S. during the Vietnam War. Many settled in the U.S. starting in the 1970s, with most settled in California, Minnesota and Wisconsin.

The senators noted that Hmong at the Thai detention center recently staged a hunger strike to protest their conditions. The U.N. High Commissioner for Refugees and human rights advocates have said the refugees are crammed into two windowless cells and are forbidden to go out, and that their sole source of water comes from a bathroom.

"While we understand that the Thai government does not intend to deport the Nong Khai detainees back to Laos," they wrote, "we are concerned by recent reports which indicate that detention conditions have worsened, and that the Thai government is decreasing its commitment to assist Hmong fleeing persecution from Laos and blocking efforts to resettle eligible individuals to third countries."

The Thai embassy in Washington didn’t immediately return a telephone message left Tuesday.

The Hmong were on the verge of being repatriated to Laos in January, but promises from Western countries to take them for resettlement halted the move.

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