Before dawn yesterday, Thai military officials raided a house not far from the border, finding dozens of undocumented Cambodian workers crammed into a room awaiting transportation deeper into the country.
The 84 workers were woken, taken into military custody and deported, but the brokers who had smuggled them into the country were nowhere to be found, according to Koy Kuong, spokesman for Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs.
“The [Thai authorities] did not hurt the workers, just arrested them and sent them back,” Kuong said.
Thai media put the number higher, reporting that the military rangers discovered and repatriated 103 Cambodians during the raid: 64 men and 39 women who were being held by their traffickers in a small premise with no ventilation. The workers had allegedly each paid a Thai national named Phuyai Sua 2,500 baht ($77) to smuggle them across the border to find jobs.
One day prior to the raid, a car full of undocumented migrants recently smuggled across the border crashed into another car in a head-on collision at midnight in Prachin Buri province. Two of the workers were killed instantly and the other nine injured passengers were taken to the hospital, Kuong said.
Since the ongoing exodus of more 250,000 Cambodian migrants began over fears of a crackdown following the May coup, border officials and migration experts have said economic desperation has driven many to return to their better-paying jobs. Despites promises on both sides of the border to better enforce migrant worker policies, crack down on traffickers and fast-track the documentation process, workers are still circumventing the legal channels.
“The main problem is that it takes a long time to get all the documents, and the workers can’t afford to wait. They need money quickly, so they look for the fastest way to go,” said An Bunhak, president of recruitment agency Top Manpower.
Bunhak said about 10,000 Cambodians went to work in Thailand last month through recruiters, an average number that hasn’t increased since the recent influx of workers.
While the Ministry of Labour announced last month that it would streamline overseas work applications into a $49, 20-day process, no one has yet received a single passport or visa issued under the reform, Bunhak said, adding he is hopeful implementation will start next week.
On the Thai side, the junta announced that undocumented workers have until the 21st to register at one-stop service centres, a period labour monitors said will give further incentive to workers to look to brokers.
“This way, they don’t have to wait for a passport, they can just go and get legalised there,” said Huy Pich Sovann, a program officer at the Community Legal Education Center.
But migration experts said the short window for registration is setting an unrealistic deadline that will either result in an extension or the crackdown and arrests that workers feared to begin with.
“They’re saying they want to overturn the system and really enforce anti-trafficking policy, but we’ve only been seeing these same temporary measures that are easy to do and address the immediate failures of a completely broken system rather than look to resolve the issues,” said Bangkok-based migration expert Andy Hall.