On Saturday, Banteay Meanchey border police received a desperate call.
More than 80 Cambodian migrants, including women and children, were locked in a house in Thailand. They were being starved and abused. Two boys, begging their captors for food, were kicked to death. So said the voice on the other end of the phone, a self-professed 26-year-old undocumented migrant who had trusted two Thai brokers to lead him to higher paying employment across the border. He pleaded with the police to come and find them.
The call set in motion a joint Cambodian-Thai investigation, and prompted local media reports. A search and rescue party was sent to Samut Prakan province, just south of Bangkok, where the caller said they had been taken.
Police scoured the area, but found nothing. They tried calling the man again, but his number was disconnected.
The problem, they concluded yesterday afternoon, was that the call had been fake.
“Day and night we searched, and we found that there was no truth to this call,” said Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong. “The Cambodian workers [in the area] told investigating police they were OK and were working in their factory as usual. They also knew the man who had made the call to the authorities very well. The workers told police that the man and his wife escaped immediately after calling.”
After duping police and leading them on a wild hunt with his call, suspected prankster Chan Thy enraged authorities on both sides of border.
“That man reported that they were beaten by Thai brokers who took their clothes, bags, money and valuables from them. That man claimed that on November 8, two 8-year-old boys who came along with their mothers from Kampong Cham were kicked against the concrete wall to death after they cried for food since they were starving,” said Chin Piseth, deputy director of the Cambodia-Thailand Borders Relation Office.
Police in Thailand are seeking the arrest of the fraudulent caller. In Samrong Tong district, Kampong Speu, his hometown, authorities were informed to watch out for him.
“This case made both Cambodia and Thai authorities unhappy. That man should be punished if he is arrested, since he has attempted to make the two nations’ people distrust each other,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Kuong said.
While the call may have been fake, the abuse and exploitation of migrant workers is a legitimate issue in Thailand, where an estimated 450,000 to 800,000 Cambodian migrants are subjected to the whims of an ill-defined and haphazardly enforced labour system.
“A large proportion of all migrant workers in Thailand are controlled by or have movement restricted by unregulated brokers,” said migrant rights’ expert Andy Hall.
But more frequently than holding migrants hostage and torturing them, unscrupulous brokers abandon their charges without fulfilling promises of employment.
In August, a group of brokers masquerading as an employment agency charged nearly 200 workers up to $400 each. But instead of finding them jobs, the company dropped the labourers off in a field across the border and switched off its phone number.
Earlier the same month, 75 workers were stranded on an island, left by their Thai employer with no money, no food and no way back.
Migrant workers in Thailand “are particularly vulnerable” to abuse and exploitation due largely to their undocumented status, according to the 2014 Trafficking in Persons report, which downgraded Thailand to the lowest possible ranking.
In response to the embarrassing downgrade, and after more than 250,000 mostly undocumented Cambodians fled the May 22 coup, Thailand’s ruling junta launched a temporary registration system for foreign workers. Over 1.6 million migrants throughout the country were handed temporary work permits and residency cards from June until the deadline, October 31. Many thousands more are thought to remain undocumented.
“I don’t think the end of the latest registration process is going to limit the number of migrant workers coming or going to Thailand. It just means that now there will be a crackdown … a corruption buffet for police. Those [workers] who can pay can be released and will stay. Those who can’t will be detained, subjected to abuse and deported to fill quotas,” said Phil Roberston, deputy director for Human Rights Watch Asia.
In October, 9,425 undocumented workers were repatriated to Cambodia through the Poipet International Checkpoint, said Sim Sam Arth, chief of the Poipet immigration office.