Legal and illegal migrant workers are racing for Thailand’s borders, with 37,000 crossing the Cambodian border at Poi Pet on Friday alone.
The Thai army on Wednesday said it would arrest and deport all illegal migrant workers found in the Kingdom.
“We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said.
The announcement, along with persistent rumours among migrant communities that the Thai army is preparing a violent crackdown on illegal workers, has led thousands to return home.
The Geneva-based International Organisation for Migration (IOM) estimates more than 100,000 migrants have self-deported or have been forcibly repatriated by the junta government since the beginning of June.
There are usually around 100 migrants using the main Aranyaprathet-Poipet border checkpoint each day, according to the IOM. By Wednesday, that number ballooned to 1,000; on Friday, more than 37,000 arrived by truck, bus and taxi, and have overwhelmed resources.
IOM spokesman Joe Lowry told Asian Correspondent the Cambodian government had by Friday begun to control the migration process, setting up first aid stations alongside the Red Cross, who were distributing water and food.
“People are in reasonably good condition, but they’ve got no money. People are being stranded at the border,” Lowry said.
He said many he spoke to are relieved to be leaving Thailand, after the military took power in a May 22 coup.
“People are genuinely happy getting on the buses,” he said.
Smaller numbers are coming through at border posts in other provinces, and still more may be crossing unofficially through forests and open country.
On Thailand’s Western border with Burma, workers say Thai security forces have shut down illegal crossing points, stranding many ‘day labourers’ who cross back and forth for work.
Since early June, the Thai military has deported at least 369 Burmese migrant workers following seven raids in Mae Sot, Chiang Mai and Ranong, according to reports by the Democratic Voice of Burma. On Wednesday, Chiang Mai authorities razed nine homes in a Shan Burmese neighbourhood the city government claimed were owned by illegal immigrants. Earlier that morning, soldiers arrested 50 workers nearby, at a known pickup site for undocumented laborers.
Allegations of abuse and extortion
The Department of Employment director-general Pravit Khiengpol reassured all 441,569 legally registered Cambodian woorrkers they could still work in Thailand as usual. But rumours circulating online of up to 30 deaths at the hands of the Thai army have led even legal workers to flee.
Investigators from the Cambodian human rights NGO ADHOC said they had received “credible witness accounts” that up to nine Cambodian migrants had been killed during the deportations, and that “beatings have occurred at the hands of the Thai armed forces.”
ADHOC’s coordinator for women and children Chhay Sokuntea told Radio Free Asia that witnesses reported eight migrant deaths in Chonburi and one in Bangkok.
She said the victims were killed by Thai soldiers during raids on their rented homes, adding that workers were being “abused and extorted” by both Thai and Cambodian authorities.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs (MFA) in a statement Thursday dismissed reports of violence being used against the Cambodian workers, including allegations that nine workers were killed.
It rejected “rumours of [the] Thai army using violence against illegal Cambodian [labourers] as well as capturing them and sending them back to Cambodia,” according to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh.
Labour Ministry promises jobs ‘blitz’; returnees’ future uncertain
IOM spokesman Joe Lowry said buses are leaving Poi Pet every hour for Cambodia’s provincial capitals, but many remain stranded at the border after arriving without enough money for a ticket.
Meng Hout, 35, left his unprofitable farm in Batambang Province a month ago with his wife and two young children.
“I have debts of almost $1,000 and wasn’t making enough from my farm so I took a job as a fruit picker across the border,” he told the IOM. The family decided to escape the uncertainty in Thailand, he said, piling into a bus taxi with 35 other people to reach Poi Pet.
The Cambodian Labour Ministry is preparing a “jobs creation blitz” to address the influx of workers, according the Cambodia Daily.
In Thailand, with around 1 million migrants underpinning its construction industry, some have expressed concern the NCPO’s strict stance might delay ongoing constructions and the delivery of projects to customers.
“You have to wonder what will happen if all the migrants do leave. They’re involved in every industry here…and its not just labourers, but white collar workers as well.
“There are massive amounts of remittances being sent home to their families. If all the undocumented workers leave, that would change the economic dynamics in the region,” Lowry said.