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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rush for border claims first lives

A Cambodian migrant worker with her children walks past a queue of military transport trucks at the border town of Poipet
A Cambodian migrant worker with her children walks past a queue of military transport trucks at the Poipet border town last week. Vireak Mai

Rush for border claims first lives

Six undocumented Cambodian migrants and their driver died in a car crash on Saturday night, officials said, making them the first confirmed casualties in an exodus of workers trying to escape instability in junta-controlled Thailand.

The workers were en route to the border when their broker-hired truck overturned in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province, according to Chen Piseth, deputy director of the Cambodia-Thai Border Relations Office.

The International Organization for Migration (IOM) said staff medics assisted an additional 13 wounded passengers, who the government said are also Cambodian workers. The injured were transported to the Cambodian-Soviet Hospital in Banteay Meanchey province, where medical authorities are also attempting to identify the dead passengers and return their bodies to their families.

“It was a chance traffic accident caused by carelessness,” Piseth said. “The driver carried a heavy load and drove fast, so when one of the wheels got a flat, [the truck] overturned.”

Spurred on by fear of arrest and detention as police and soldiers conduct worksite raids, more than 110,000 workers, mostly undocumented, have spilled through the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey since June 1, according to IOM. About 40,000 people crossed yesterday morning alone, leaving aid workers to speculate that by the time the border closed at about 11pm, the count would far exceed the previous day’s record-breaking 45,000 returnees.

“It’s very, very busy and chaotic here,” said Sum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey coordinator for rights group Adhoc. “The stream of people is never ending.”

Recently returned workers at the border told the Post that they “didn’t dare stay in Thailand,” preferring joblessness and homeless to a panic triggered by unsubstantiated rumours that Thai authorities have shot and killed undocumented workers.

Many migrants reported returning after their employers fired them following pressure and threats of steep fines from the junta government.

The military has consistently downplayed its role in the frenzy, however, and denied ordering the expulsion of undocumented labourers despite a spokesman’s announcement last Wednesday that undocumented workers would be arrested and deported if they were found.

In a statement issued on Friday, Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sek Wannamethee dismissed accusations that the military was conducting a “national crackdown on Cambodian workers regardless of their status … forcibly [repatriating] them to their homeland”, calling it a “groundless” rumour. He added that the military has been instructed to help facilitate the “voluntarily” returning Cambodians with their travels, not to force them back.

Wannamethee went so far as to claim that workers are leaving to assist with rice farming in their home provinces, and rejected the assertion that any Thai officials have used violence against Cambodian workers.

Cambodians have long supplied an integral part of Thailand’s 3.5 million-strong foreign workforce, bolstering the country’s shortage of unskilled labourers. In return, the higher paying jobs in Thailand allow for remittances to be sent home.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha has said that Thailand needs its foreign workers, but he wants a well-managed system in which “[the workers] should be regulated”. Last week, the National Council for Peace and Order announced the creation of a committee to oversee the creation and enforcement of policies regarding the migrant workforce, but the order did not mention any deportation plan.

Meanwhile, dozens of repatriated Cambodians told the Post about having to hide during recent police raids and reported being solicited for as much as $66 by military officials in exchange for safe passage to the border. Thai media also reported several checkpoints set up along highways where military personnel are apprehending scores of migrant workers.

Recently repatriated construction worker Kim San, 35, said that when soldiers ostensibly came to assist the 300 workers at his site in returning to Cambodia, the officers instead jailed the group, demanding each pay 300 baht ($10) to get out of detention.

The workers had to pay an additional 1,700 baht for the soldiers to bus them to the border.

“We were told if we didn’t have the money, they would shoot us or keep us in detention,” he said.

Yesterday, the national police commissioner’s website featured pictures of Cambodian workers in Thailand clearing grass. The post said the workers were caught trying to return to Cambodia, and because they could not pay soldiers 300 baht each, they were forced to clear the area around the border checkpoint adjoining Battambang province before they were permitted to leave.

National Police spokesman Kirt Chantharith said yesterday that the Ministry of Interior “was investigating” the situation, but declined to comment further.

Cambodian officials have responded to allegations of abused migrant workers by calling for mutual cooperation to assist with safe passage.

“Thai authorities have arrested and deported Cambodian migrant workers in a rush and have not paid attention to the safety and well-being of Cambodian migrant labourers,” Interior Minister Sar Kheng said in a statement released on Friday.

But repatriated workers are finding their troubles don’t end after crossing the border; several have discovered themselves subject to abuse and exploitation by fellow Cambodians. Police in Poipet yesterday arrested two local men after they charged migrants for nonexistent bus tickets on government-subsidised transportation.

“Workers reported that the suspects took 4,000 riel per person [$1] for a ticket to go back home in the provinces,” said Om Sophal, Poipet police chief.

The government and IOM have mobilised all forms of trucks, chartered buses, vans and military vehicles to transport migrant workers to the provinces for free. Prime Minister Hun Sen has so far allocated about 300 military trucks to assist deportees.

But with an unending stream of unemployed, vulnerable migrants crossing into Cambodia, and with estimates of the undocumented workers remaining in Thailand hovering near the 200,000 mark, rights monitors said a long-term reintegration plan is integral to steering the country away from an economic crisis.

“These people are in complete shock and don’t have the means to transition back into society or the workforce. They’re going to need emergency assistance,” said Ou Virak, chairman of the Cambodian Centre for Human Rights.

“This will have an undoubted negative effect on the economies of both countries. It’s going to be a significant problem if something isn’t done,” he said.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY KHOUTH SOPHAK CHAKRYA, PHAK SEANGLY AND THE BANGKOK POST

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