Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers and their families have fled Thailand in the past two weeks after Thai coup leaders issued a warning that they will launch a crackdown against illegal foreign workers.
According to the International Organization for Migration (IOM), about 180,000 workers have already crossed the Poipet border between Thailand and Cambodia; although many reports pegged the number at 220,000. There is an estimated half a million Cambodians of both legal and undocumented status in Thailand.
The mass exodus is also fueled by rumors that Thai soldiers have been attacking Cambodian workers. Sithi, a human rights group in Cambodia, is probing the issue:
This vicious campaign has seen thousands of Cambodians packed into trucks like animals and forcibly returned to Cambodia. Returnees have reported violent raids on houses where illegal immigrants are suspected of residing and incidences of the tearing up of documentation entitling Cambodians to work legally in the country.
According to the IOM, family members have been separated during the ordeal. Shelters and latrines are needed to accommodate returnees.
“No heartache, just movement,” Joe Lowry of the IOM wrote after he witnessed the arrival of migrant workers at the border:
There was no heartache on the border last week as tens of thousands of people poured off buses and thronged a muddy roundabout in a flyblown town you’ll never hear of again, going to places that are just dots on the map, down roads that peter out into tracks, where they will be hugged and kissed and feted, before the solemn reality of more mouths to feed, day after day, kicks in. No heartache, just movement. Lots of movement. People, trucks, buses, bikes, taxis, tuk-tuks [popular three-wheeled public transport in Cambodia], stray dogs, chickens, soldiers, cats, cascading silver rain from mercury clouds, drying in the white sun and pushing waves of hot, wet air, drawing beads and rivulets of sweat which became a paste on the skin when the mud dried rapidly to dust.
Humanitarian organization Caritas Cambodia is appealing for help for the returning migrants, some of whom are pregnant workers and are “struggling to look for food, water and transportation.”
Cambodia-based expat blogger Lina also documented the return of the workers at the border:
It’s unclear whether or not they have been forcibly removed by the Thai junta or are voluntarily leaving out of fear–there are rumors circulating within the Cambodian community that those who do not leave voluntarily will be shot–but seeing the road to Aranyaprathet in Thailand full of caged trucks packed with frightened Cambodians was distressing to say the least.
Photojournalist John Vink wrote that the unexpected return of workers from Thailand will put a pressure on Cambodia’s economy:
For many it is back to square one: having left because migrating to Thailand is the only solution to provide some revenue to the family, the returnees now find themselves facing the same issue of unemployment in a country which should seriously question its ability to provide jobs for its citizens.
Thousands of Cambodians prefer to work in Thailand where there is a minimum wage of $10 per day. In contrast, Cambodia has no fixed wages. In fact, it has one of the lowest wages in the Southeast Asia region. Garment workers receive a monthly salary of $100.
Opposition leader Mu Sochua argued on her blog that the current crisis exposed the failure of the government’s economic policies:
The inhumane deportation of close to 200,000′Cambodian workers from Thailand, in the past few days shows the true picture of the so called economic growth in Cambodia and the failure of poverty reduction strategy.
To facilitate the speedy return of the workers to Thailand, Cambodia has slashed the price of passports for migrant workers from $124 to $4. It also established a one-stop office at the border to process the papers and other concerns of workers.
Writing for the Southeast Asia analysis website New Mandala, Charlie Thame observed that the Thai coup regime is serious in sustaining the campaign against illegal foreign workers:
Such purges are regular occurrences in Thailand, where a relatively laissez-faire approach is taken towards undocumented workers when the economy is booming, followed by crackdowns during downturns. But there are reasons to believe that this time may be different; especially as regards migrants from Myanmar. This is due to NCPO [official name of the Thai coup regime] attempts to securitise the issue and fast tracking plans for the establishment of special border economic zones.
The exodus of workers has posed a problem for both Thailand and Cambodia; the former is already experiencing a shortage of workers in some industries, while the latter could not provide employment to all returning workers.
It is a concrete example of how Thailand’s coup is affecting its neighbors, but the humanitarian crisis at the Poipet border isn't simply a regional issue — it requires global attention and assistance.