Thailand and Cambodia agree to quash crackdown ‘rumours’ after worker exodus

After rumour of crackdown on illegal workers sparks mass exodus of migrants, neighbour agrees with junta on steps to reassure labourers

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 17 June, 2014, 4:00pm
UPDATED : Wednesday, 18 June, 2014, 1:38am

Thailand and Cambodia agreed yesterday to quash "rumours" of a crackdown against illegal migrant workers by the new Thai junta after the exodus of nearly 180,000 Cambodian labourers.

The numbers of labourers fleeing home soared after the Thai military regime warned last week that illegal foreign workers face arrest and deportation.

The junta has since insisted there is no "crackdown" and blamed false rumours for the massive exodus.

The International Organisation for Migration has previous estimated that about 180,000 undocumented Cambodian workers live in Thailand, so it is unclear exactly how many still remain.

Migrants from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar play a key role in Thai industries such as seafood, agriculture and construction, but they often lack work permits.

"We need to work closely together to allay fear among the Cambodian labourers in Thailand that it is not the policy of the current administration to crack down on labourers regardless of their (legal) status," said the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand, Eat Sophea. She also dismissed rumours of the shooting and abuse of Cambodian migrants by Thai authorities - among the factors believed to be triggering workers to flee.

"The reports about shootings, the reports about other abuses are rumours and are not true. It's been taken out of context," Eat said. "We agreed to work together in order to clarify any issues."

During talks with Thai foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow yesterday, the two countries also agreed to set up a hotline on labour issues.

"We agreed to set up some form of a hotline ... to communicate requests for clarification for assistance to facilitate those labourers who wish to return to Cambodia," the Cambodian ambassador said.

At the main border crossing between the two countries in Poipet - a bustling town home to several large businesses, casinos and hotels - a few hundred Cambodian migrants arrived in Thai military trucks and police cars yesterday morning.

"The number of Cambodians returning from Thailand into Poipet [the main Thai-Cambodian border crossing] in just over a week reached 157,000 by this morning," said Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey where the checkpoint is based.

About 20,000 others have crossed the border at O'Smach, a checkpoint some 250km northeast from Poipet, according to the governor and a senior Cambodian police official.

Thailand's military regime has denied it has been forcing Cambodian workers out of the country after issuing a warning last week that it viewed illegal migrants as a "threat". The foreign ministry has said authorities attach "great importance" to the role migrant workers play in Thailand's economy.

In the past Thai authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal labourers because they were needed when the economy was booming. But now the country is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of this year.