Tens of thousands of Cambodians have fled neighbouring Thailand to return home, fearing a crackdown on migrant workers under Thailand's new military government, a senior Cambodian official said yesterday.
Activists said the workers had been forced out of the country, but Thailand denied the claim.
More than 84,000 workers have returned this month through the border crossing at the western Cambodian town of Poipet, said Kor Samsarouet, the governor of Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey province. About 40,000 crossed on Friday alone, and 10,000 returned yesterday morning, he said.
The UN-affiliated International Organisation for Migration gave similar figures, tweeting yesterday morning that 60,000 migrants had crossed back, including 37,000 on Friday. "More than half of the migrants are women and children," IOM said earlier. "Aside from transport, there is also a growing need for food, water, health care and shelter."
The Cambodian government has sent scores of trucks to Poipet to take the workers home.
The trigger for the exodus seems to have been statements by Thailand's military government, which took power in a coup last month, that it would crack down on illegal immigrants and those employing them. Several were reportedly fired from jobs and sent home, and the belief spread that both legal and illegal workers were being ejected.
The numbers of those fleeing swelled as unsubstantiated rumours circulated that Thai authorities had shot dead or beaten several Cambodian workers. Thai authorities have denied the rumours and sought to quell concerns about a crackdown, adding that they have plans to systematise migrant labour.
Cambodians, both legally and illegally, fill low-paying and undesirable jobs shunned by most Thais, as do migrants from Thailand's other poor neighbours, especially Myanmar.
Cambodian Labour Minister Ith Samheng said about 200,000 Cambodian migrants had been working in Thailand, just 80,000 of them legally. Other estimates are higher.
As the number of Cambodians seeking to leave ballooned last week, Thai immigration authorities joined hands with the military to help transport them to the border, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee, stressing that the process was meant to provide convenience to the Cambodian workers, not to forcibly expel them.
"The Thai authorities realise the importance of migrant workers from neighbouring countries in driving Thailand's economy forward," he said.
"As a result, we would like to revamp and integrate the management system, as well as to get rid of exploitation from smugglers, in a bid to prevent abuses of the workers and human trafficking problems."
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 organisations, saw the matter differently, posting an open letter on Thursday deploring what it described as the Thai junta's decision to deport Cambodian migrants en masse.
"The Thai military violated the human rights of undocumented Cambodian migrant workers when it forcefully expelled them from the country, placing them in crowded trucks," the letter said.