More Than 160,000 Cambodian Workers Return From Thailand

Cambodian military trucks wait in Banteay Meanchey province on the border with Thailand to repatriate Cambodian workers back to their hometown, June 14, 2014.

There has been an exodus of Cambodian workers from neighboring Thailand amid a crackdown on illegal labor by the military junta in Bangkok, with the number returning to their homeland hitting more than 160,000 as of Monday, according to officials.

Amid the rush home, one local official said that eight people have been killed in two separate road accidents.

Though Thai authorities have described the movement across the border as “voluntary,” the mass return of Cambodian workers has been driven largely by Thailand’s military, which now governs Thailand after taking power in a May 22 coup, a Cambodian official said.

“The Thai military has instructed private companies not to accept illegal immigrants,” Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung told RFA’s Khmer service. “[Cambodian] immigrants who entered Thailand illegally must now return.”

Rumors of Thai military brutality against Cambodian immigrants are also causing workers to flee, he said.

Koy Kuong was quoted saying by the Associated Press that more than 160,000 Cambodians have returned home through several border checkpoints since June 1. There are estimated to be well upward of 200,000 Cambodians working in Thailand, most illegally.

Fears for safety

One worker returning to Cambodia said he decided to leave Thailand out of fear for his personal safety.

“I returned from Thailand because I heard that if I am arrested by Thai police, they will put me in jail for three months, or that I might be killed,” the worker, Houy Dy, told RFA.

“Because I am afraid of dying, I decided to go back,” he said.

A Cambodian woman named Ngoun Pov said that she decided to return after hearing a Thai television broadcast urging illegal immigrants to leave the country, adding, “I originally left Cambodia because I had no job or land to cultivate.”

Her two daughters meanwhile remain “trapped” in Thailand, she said.

On Monday alone, around 12,000 workers arrived in the border town of Poipet in northwestern Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodian officials said.

Banteay Meanchey Governor Kor Sum Saroeut told RFA that eight people had been killed in two separate accidents during the trip home, saying the victims were aged 16 to 31 years.

“The workers were en route to the border when their broker-hired truck  overturned in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province,” The Phnom Penh Post said, citing information received  from the Cambodia-Thai Border Relations Office.

'Credible accounts'

Last week, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), an umbrella group of 21 nongovernmental organizations, claimed that investigators from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)—a CHRAC member—have received “credible witness accounts” that up to nine Cambodian migrants have been killed during the deportations, and that “beatings have occurred at the hands of the Thai armed forces.”

Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee described the departures by Cambodians as voluntary, calling allegations of forced removals from Thailand “unfounded,” according to an AP report Monday.

Crossings into Cambodia have only been “facilitated by the Thai side in terms of transportation to the border checkpoints,” Sek said.

Thai army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a statement that Thailand's ruling junta, the National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO), has no policy of cracking down on Cambodian workers.

Recently repatriated Cambodian workers said that in several cases, Thai soldiers had coerced payment for safe passage to the border, threatening to jail or kill immigrants who refused to pay, The Post said on Monday.

Laborers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar have played a key role in Thai industries such as seafood, agriculture, and construction, but often lack proper work permits.

Though Thailand’s army, which took control after years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and the family of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra, has proposed special economic zones in Thailand’s border areas to better manage migrant workers, it has provided few  details on how to implement the plan.

Reported by  Suon Sophalmony and Samean Yun for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Richard Finney.

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