Cambodian migrant workers stand in a truck as they arrive from Thailand at a border gate in Poipet, Cambodia last month. Pic: AP.

In the dusty border town of Poipet, things have quieted down compared to the previous weeks’ onslaught of trucks ferrying Cambodian migrant workers “voluntarily” back from Thailand.

Ms. Pheap, a seller of beverages and small food items, said.  “I never saw anything like it before.  There were so many people helping.  The government, the UN [United Nations] and NGOs.  They helped with medicine and transportation, for free.”

“Free” is significant to the throngs of migrants – an estimated 220,000 the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC) said passed the border under duress.  Terrorized by Thai military rifles aimed at their vehicles, exploited by police for bribes (lest they be imprisoned) and extorted for expensive rides by taxi drivers, this is a group that was clearly on the edge.

Sources told Asian Correspondent returnees spoke of being cheated for money during their flight and treated like cash cows. Increasing their stress, many were not able to claim their final pay in the rush.  There is evidence that not all workers returned to Cambodia out of fear, there were some returnees that simply had no more work and were leaving Thailand voluntarily.

Whether forced to leave Thailand or voluntarily returning to Cambodia, the help was both needed and, according the migrants Asian Correspondent spoke with, appreciated.

Mali, a 33-year-old construction worker waiting at the border in the hope of returning to Thailand, said the Cambodian Red Cross, (which Bun Rany, wife of Premier Hun Sen, has been heavily involved in) was “very helpful”.

Now, as the dust literally settles, the Thai government announced in a press conference last Friday at the Poipet border, that it is was implementing a “fast track visa” for undocumented migrant workers that cost just $37.

Concurrently, the Cambodian government announced it was sharply reducing passport fees from $135 to just $4 for students studying abroad or migrant workers with jobs waiting for them, but it will take weeks to process.

Asian Correspondent traveled to Poipet to speak with several hopefuls. Like day laborers waiting for work, these hopefuls do not yet have their documents but had come back to the border to be readily on hand when the paperwork does go through.  Eight workers with “DC Company” had been told by their Thai boss to be ready.

“We don’t know how much it costs or when it will happen but we are here waiting,” said Mr Lin and his wife Mali, both from a village near Battambang. The group, all from the same village, said they share a guesthouse room at Poipet, cramming about a dozen people together in a $10- to $15-a-night room.

Another group of young men with construction experience did not have a Thai boss but wanted to find one at the border to help them get work and a new visa.

“It used to be that you might not get paid, or that your boss might call the police if you complained, but things are better now,” said 29-year-old Mr. Ta from Battambang, who worked undocumented and preferred it to a broker.

These undocumented workers (Asian Correspondent spoke with 15 such hopefuls waiting at the border) said they avoided brokers as they cost too much.  They reported wages ranging from 200 to 300 baht (US$6.20 to $9.25) a day, with young teens in agriculture or women working in construction at the lower end of the pay scale while adult men earned the most.

While undocumented workers avoid the broker fees and loss of wages they represent, without papers they are at the mercy of potentially abusive bosses, neighbors who can report them and passing policemen who can extort them for bribes.

“If you don’t pay the bribe, you go to jail,” said one waiting migrant worker.

Official papers are meant to guarantee that the worker is legal and can move about freely.  Yet, because they owe brokers who take the fee out of their pay, often migrant workers’ documents are held by bosses, creating a mirror of the former situation.  It is no wonder that 50 to 55 percent of the estimated 440,000 workers that come to Thailand to work, according to ADHOC, are undocumented.

Undocumented workers said they simply avoided going out when in Thailand.  But while the police were a known threat, the military junta seemed to be much more feared.  The junta has taken a nationalistic stance towards foreign workers, seeking to “protect” the Thai people.

“There is not really so much of a problem with the police but since the coup it is worse with the military,” said Mr. Ta.

Brahm Press, director of MAP Foundation, an organization working to promote the rights and health of migrant workers told Asian Correspondent, “Since the situation has been ‘reset’ the Thai government needs to make sure that the new set-up doesn’t cause more problems. The military government says that the new one-stop system is eliminating middlemen [brokers], and that is a welcome development.”

The Cambodian government, to its credit, has put an official cap on the fees a broker can charge to migrant workers applying for the $4 passport.  The fee is limited to $49, but the process could take 53 days.

Yet those lingering at the border expressed doubt about the true cost.  Previously, broker and visa fees were reported to have been as high as $500 to work in Thailand.

“Do you really think the $4 passport will be real?  What about the people benefiting from corruption and the fees?  They are not going to lose their money,” said ‘Don’ a tourism operator who worked at the border.

Another tourism operator, ‘Jim’, pointed out that Cambodians were charged 100 baht (US$3.10) just to cross back to Cambodia, the same price asked of tourists who often refuse the fee.  “Cambodians pay because they are scared,” he said.

While Asian Correspondent was speaking with migrants waiting on the Cambodian side of the border, police came by to listen in on their statements.

On the Thai side the new fast track system looks appealing, as it is faster than the reported weeks it will take for the Cambodian system, but it is not without drawbacks.

Getting registered “is only one part of the problem,” explains Press from MAP.  “Once they are registered, migrants need to be able to hold their documents, access meaningful complaint mechanisms and enjoy their full rights without discrimination. While the employer still withholds their documents, migrants’ freedom is limited, and that leaves them vulnerable to abuse.”

All the hopeful returnees Asian Correspondent spoke with said they were out of money from their return and expected their boss to handle the arrangements.

A prominent labor activist, Pranom (Bee) also sees the reliance on employers as a concern.  She told Asian Correspondent that, “registration should be free from employers (similar to 2004 registration), and MOI should register and give temporary ID card for migrants.”

Another worrying development is the Thai government’s desire to contain migrants in special economic zones.  Press thought this could contribute to treating migrants as “other” to Thai people.  Bee agreed.  “We find the acceleration of the Special Border Economic Zones to be alarming as it is seen as a way to prevent migrants from entering inner Thailand. We find the rationale, to ‘prevent migrants coming’, and the potential impact on labor conditions very concerning,” she said.

The majority of migrants said they worked in Bangkok on construction projects, though some worked on farms near the Cambodian border.

All the families waiting at the border similarly said their families in the village depended on their remittances. The half million or so workers in Thailand form a vital support system as farmers continue to lose land and their means of survival.

“There is nothing in my village. Only old people and children live there. There are no jobs and not enough land to grow rice,” said 29-year-old Ms. Hun from Battambang.

Not all undocumented workers have returned to Cambodia.  Asian Correspondent spoke with Srun Srorn, founding member of CamASEAN, an association of Cambodian youth addressing problems related to ASEAN integration.  The volunteer group is supporting land grab victims in Sre Ambel district in Koh Kong province near the Thai border.  Most  ofthe able-bodied adults from the village work in Thailand and send remittances back home which their children and the elderly depend on.  Srun said: “The village leader and Eb Mon [an elder teacher] said no one has come back to the village.  They are still in Thailand.”

While Press and Bee say that including migrant workers in any “monitoring” system Thailand implements will be key to its success from a human rights standpoint, those that cannot get permits to work will face a bitter truth of diminishing returns in their homeland.  Despite the assistance offered by the Cambodian government during the deportation crisis, there is still little work that amounts to a living wage and the land grabs continue.

Mr. Gumroun, a 41-year-old father from a village near Sisophon waiting for work permits with his two teen children said: “My land might not even be there anymore in my village.”  But if he does not get his work permit, he said he’ll go back.