The military coup in Thailand has uprooted tens of thousands of Cambodian migrants who have been working there illegally, drawn by the abundance of jobs that many Thais are unwilling to take.
Amid rumours of violence and impending arrests, the majority of migrants voluntarily surrendered to Thai police and were then transported by the military to Poipet, a small Cambodian town on the border with Thailand. But others recounted arrests, raids and extortion by Thai soldiers.
With the coup, Poipet was instantly transformed into an aid camp teeming with hundreds of soldiers and relief workers workers as thousands of migrants poured into the town, arriving in overcrowded Thai detention vehicles, cattle trucks and buses.
Many had fallen ill or unconscious during the journey and were swiftly taken to a makeshift medical tent that had been hastily erected amidst mud and garbage. The rest of the migrants were greeted by volunteers who directed them to a tent where youth groups and monks distributed food, water and toiletries.
The streets were lined with dozens of military trucks waiting to take the migrants to their home provinces while a loudspeaker blared overhead announcing the names of the destinations.
“It is total chaos,” said Brett Dickson, a team leader with the International Organization for Migration, last month. “We have never seen so many people before. Every day we are becoming more co-ordinated, but this sets a new precedent for us. We are focusing on the most vulnerable: mothers, children and the elderly. But it’s difficult to manage all these migrants. There are just so many people.”
The IOM said some 250,000 Cambodians working in Thailand, most of them without documentation, spilled across the border back into Cambodia in June.
Since seizing power in late May, the junta led by General Prayuth Chan-ocha has sought to rid Thailand of undocumented labourers, saying that it wants to regularize the nation’s foreign work force.
“I worked as a glass cutter in Bangkok,” said Nuon, a 30-year-old migrant who goes by one name. As the rain began to fall in Poipet, he huddled under a tent with a dozen or so mothers cradling their newborns.
“While I cannot work legally in Thailand, my employer regularly paid off the police,” Nuon said. “All of us workers were safe until [June 14] when the army knocked on the door. We heard that if you run, they will shoot. The army put us in a truck. We didn’t have time to go home and collect our things.”
Many of the Cambodians were left stranded for days in border towns after losing their luggage while others were forced to wait after being separated from their family members.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee – an umbrella group of 21 non-profit groups – accused the Thai military of subjecting migrants to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment.” Its investigators said they had “credible witness accounts” that up to nine migrants were killed during the deportations.
Thai military authorities dismiss reports of a crackdown, claiming that most workers were returning to Cambodia in time for the harvest season or because of expired employment contracts.
In late June, Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen, who had remained relatively quiet regarding the mass exodus, criticized the Thai military for what he said was abuse of the rights of Cambodian labourers. And he appealed to Gen. Prayuth to release 13 Cambodians who were arrested for allegedly having their work papers endorsed with fake stamps.
After the initial confusion, thousands of Cambodians desperate for well-paying jobs are now trying to return to Thailand despite the continuing uncertainty about their status and their safety. Still, many Cambodian officials are hopeful that some migrants who had been forced out of Thailand will opt to stay in Cambodia.
Kousoum Saroeuth, the governor of Banteay Meanchey – a province located approximately 430 kilometres from the capital city Phnom Penh – said there were thousands of garment factory positions available for migrants. “I feel sorry for my people, but we have lots of jobs,” he said.
But the garment sector, a key driver of Cambodia’s economic growth, has also been the focus of massive protests in recent years as workers seek higher wages and better conditions.
“I make [$265] as a construction worker in Thailand. Why would I work in a garment factory in Cambodia?” said Heng, a 55-year-old construction worker who was recently rounded up by the Thai army. He would not give his full name. “I think many people will go back to Thailand – with or without documents. There is no way to make a decent living in Cambodia.”