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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Migrant exodus likened to 2014

Cambodian migrant workers unload bags at the Poipet border from a truck that deported workers from Thailand last week.
Cambodian migrant workers unload bags at the Poipet border from a truck that deported workers from Thailand last week. Maryann Bylander

Migrant exodus likened to 2014

Thailand yesterday extended the suspension of hefty fines and other punishments for undocumented migrant workers until the end of this year following widespread criticism from businesses and rights organisations after an exodus that, though smaller in size, has drawn comparisons to a 2014 migrant crackdown.

“The National Council for Peace and Order this morning approved to extend the suspension for six months,” said Preeda Tongchumnum, a member of the NGO consortium Migrant Working Group, yesterday.

While Preeda welcomed the extension she said it would not address existing issues with the new immigration law that would go into effect following the suspension. “We want them to withdraw it.”

Thai army chief Chalermchai Sitthisart yesterday said that penalties imposed on employers and employees would be suspended until December 31. The punishments for irregular migrants include up to five years of jail and a fine of up to almost $3,000.

Meanwhile, unofficial border crossings remained closed for the fourth day yesterday in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces, according to Phlon Dara, Banteay Meanchey’s provincial military chief, and Battambang Provincial Police Chief Sar Thet.

In Poipet, border policeman Sin Namyong said more than 400 workers had arrived yesterday as of late afternoon, bringing the number of returnees since the introduction of the law on June 23 to at least 4,300. Though smaller in scale, the recent rush to the border has drawn comparisons to 2014, when a crackdown led to a sudden return en masse from Thailand.

A new “Situation Report” from the International Organisation for Migration finds “strong similarities between the current trends and those of 2014 whereby over 250,000 Cambodians suddenly returned from Thailand – prompted by fear of arrest . . . and an uncertain future”.

Meanwhile, in a soon-to-be-published study in the International Migration Review, researcher Maryann Bylander argues that while the 2014 exodus differed in scope to usual migration patterns, it reflected still-prevalent vulnerabilities.

“Financial loss, incurring debt, exploitation, insecurity, and perceived threat of violence or deportation [experienced in 2014]”, she writes, were no “stark departure from the everyday forms of insecurity characterizing their border crossings and migration experiences”.

The accounts of some of the returning migrants seemed to reflect these vulnerabilities.

Bun Ya, a migrant worker in Thailand’s Saraburi province, said by phone that he had become unemployed when his work visa expired two months ago. “I now worry that Thai authorities will find me and deport me to Cambodia,” he said.

Others have returned to Phnom Penh to renew their passports, fearing harsher punishments if they are caught without proper documentation. Waiting for passport services at the Ministry of Interior, each of them complained of high fees.

One migrant worker among a group of six, Lim Kea, said they had returned because “employers told us that [we] need to get a passport”. The expedited passport, required because the workers needed to get back to their jobs, cost about $220, he said, not including costs for a work permit and visa.

“The government should reduce the price. As migrant workers we can’t afford that,” said Smok Sarom, another migrant who returned from Thailand.

Sok Sophorn, deputy chief of the Passport Department, said that 2,500 people had applied for passports on Monday and about 3,000 yesterday, roughly twice the usual number. “Since last week, about 70 percent of them were migrant workers,” he said. “Normally . . . about 20 to 30 percent are migrant workers.”

Daniel Murphy, a labour rights consultant, said in an email that the fear of punishment was reminiscent of the 2014 exodus, and the new law was caused by an “utter absence of a coherent and long-term approach” to migration.

“Thailand needs to use less stick [heavy fines and long jail terms] and more carrot [cheap, safe and simple avenues for regular migration],” he said, adding that the suspension would hopefully provide time to rethink the law.

Additional reporting by the Bangkok Post

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