Fearing a crackdown on migrant workers after last month's military takeover, thousands of Cambodian migrant workers have fled Thailand over the weekend.
As many as 70,000 undocumented Cambodian workers left Thailand on Friday and Saturday, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM) for the Asia Pacific.
Local media reported the town of Poipet resembled a refugee camp over the weekend as more buses, trucks and military vehicles arrived carrying Cambodian workers who paid illegal smugglers to ferry them across and in some cases hefty bribes to Thailand army officers to ensure safe passage.
“Our employer gave us a choice: go home now, or stay and face the soldiers who may arrest or even shoot you,” Thai Phoun, 28, a Cambodian construction told the Phnom Penh Post. Phoun said he earned the equivalent of just $10 a day while working in Thailand since last year.
The mass exodus of workers in the last few weeks has been propelled by comments made by Thailand's military after it seized power of the country on May 22 that undocumented workers would be arrested and deported.
The Thai army has denied ordering a crackdown, saying instead it would organize migrant labor. Yet, local employers began firing employees, with many exiting of their own accord in droves, after unconfirmed rumors spread that workers had been beaten or shot.
Human rights groups have been investigating alleged violence and killings of Cambodian workers during Thai police-led raids.
One group, Adhoc, said the family of one of the victims has confirmed the death of their relative.
“We will continue to look into the rest of the cases, and ask for witness accounts for any incidents,” an Adhoc program coordinator Chhan Sokunthea, told the Phnom Penh Post.
After making the border crossing, many of the migrants, more than half of which are women and children, have been stranded without money to pay for their onward journey, according to the IOM report.
IOM said it is working with Cambodian immigration to help transport the workers and families to their home provinces. Emergency funding is also being assessed to provide the workers with food, water, healthcare and shelter.
An estimated 125,000 undocumented workers remain on the Thai side of the border, according to provincial officials.
“Once they [are] home the problem doesn’t just end,” IOM spokesman Joseph Lowry told the Phnom Post. “They’re going back to somewhere they left because they couldn’t afford to live there in the first place and they probably aren’t going to be welcomed back, as they’ll be seen as a drain on the community.”
Despite low wages in Thailand, some Cambodian workers claim they earn more there than they would back home, and have blamed their own government for driving them to find work outside of the country.
“This isn’t Thailand’s fault, it’s the fault of the leader of Cambodia who cannot provide enough jobs for his people,” Serey, a vendor and migrant worker, told the Phnom Penh Post. “Earning just five dollars a day is not enough to live on, to buy food and to send kids to school. There will only be more jobless people in Cambodia now who cannot afford to feed their families, and this time they cannot go abroad to earn more money.”
Cambodian officials said they have no immediate plans to address the employment concerns of returning workers but rather are focusing on transporting the workers home first.
A total of 441,569 registered Cambodian migrants are working in Thailand, according to Employment Department statistics obtained by the Bangkok post.
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