Soaked by rain, thousands of poor ethnic Hmong refugees from Laos were living without shelter in northern Thailand on Tuesday, forced from their homes under a Thai campaign to pressure them to return to their native land.

Landlords in this village said the government set a Monday deadline for them to evict the estimated 6,500 refugees from their bamboo shelters, threatening locals with prison or fines of up to $1,200 for sheltering the Hmong, considered by Thailand to be illegal immigrants.

Thai officials also instructed vendors not to sell food to the refugees, including children, camped out since late Monday by the roadside in Huay Nam Khao, village leaders said.

"They have no place to stay, no place to cook. How can they stand the heat and rain?" asked Sawai Leeprecha, a Thai-Hmong village leader.

Some of the Hmong demonstrated Tuesday outside a government office near the village, located in Phetchabun province about 185 miles north of the Thai capital, Bangkok. But most clustered in groups along the road carrying reed mats and plastic sheeting.

"The Hmong would like to call for the United Nations to help us survive," said Jongli Saeloh, 43. "I would rather die here than be sent back to Laos."

A sign on a fence read: "Please help, we're very hungry."

During the Vietnam War era, the Hmong in Laos helped U.S. forces fight communist insurgents. After the communists took control of Laos in 1975, many Hmong fled, fearing persecution.

Although pressure on the Hmong has eased, military operations against small bands of Hmong insurgents in Laos continue and tensions persist.