Cambodians take advantage of new fast-track visa centres set up by Thailand’s military government at border crossings
Souy Heang waited patiently in line to get his job back. The 20-year-old from Svay Rieng province was hoping to obtain a fast-track work visa with the help of his employer so he can return to Thailand as a fisherman.
Since he is paid $280 a month, Heang was keen to start working again.
“I do not know where to start,” he said at the the newly opened centre in Aranyaprathet on Friday. “My employer is helping me to obtain a border pass, work permit and other legal documents. Without my employer I could not do it by myself.”
Heang was just one of hundreds of Cambodians at the checkpoint, waiting to get their official papers to return to Thailand.
During the past three weeks, nearly a quarter of a million migrant workers have poured across the Thai-Cambodian border after the military government in Bangkok launched a massive crackdown on illegal labour.
Now they are being asked to return and ease the pressure on an economy stripped of cheap workers. But this time it will be official.
Three temporary centres offering short-term work permits opened in Sa Kaeo, Chanthaburi and Trat provinces on Thursday. A fourth will open in Surin on Monday, Thai officials have announced. Business has been brisk.
Cambodian workers will receive a two-month permit to enter Thailand. Once there, they will undergo health checks before obtaining a permanent two-year work visa.
“In a day, we can handle up to more than 3,000 people,” said Aseam Suttiruk, an official for Sa Kaeo provincial labour department in Thailand. “Now many workers have registered with us,” he added, pointing out that Thailand had more than 140,000 jobs available for migrant workers.
The fast-track service began on Thursday and will continue until July 25. Thousands of Cambodians are expected to have their official work permits processed in a day.
“Thailand’s policy is not to clear [migrants] out. [We] want to manage [it better],” said Pakkarathorn Teainchai, the Sa Kaeo provincial governor, at a press conference in Aranyaprathet district on Friday.
Aranyaprathet is a key border crossing from Thailand. On the Cambodian side, the town of Poipet was turned into a refugee camp earlier this month as workers flooded home in wake of the clampdown on illegal migrants.
While Pakkarathorn asserted that many had left Thailand “voluntarily”, he admitted the new system would help clean up the foreign labour industry.
“Thailand has a new policy to manage public order in the country. [We want to] help Cambodian migrants work legally in Thailand [and earn] a good salary based on Thai laws.”
On Thursday, Prime Minister Hun Sen called the mass exodus of Cambodian workers “a violation”, which he blamed on the junta-led government. He also appealed to coup leader general Prayuth Chan-ocha to release 13 Cambodians arrested for allegedly using fake visas. Last week, Prayuth claimed that the rumours which triggered the exodus were spread by “influential figures and corrupt officials” who aimed to profit from bribes when the labourers returned.
Still, the opening of one-stop centres in Thailand is likely to wreck the Cambodian government’s own efforts to send workers back legally by using new procedures such as $4 passports.
Mao Chandara, the director-general at the General Directorate of Identificiation at the Ministry of Interior, questioned why the Thais had not approached his government before seeting up the processing centres.
“I heard about the centres that were created yesterday on the Thai side,” he said. “For me, I wonder why they are doing things on their own without discussion with Cambodia. We thank them if this will make it easier for Cambodian migrant workers, but they should discuss it with [us]. It’s a self-made decision from the Thai side.”
Earlier this week, the Phnom Penh government announced that licensed recruiters would be able to charge a flat-fee of $49 to help workers obtain passports and official documentation to travel to Thailand legally. But the process could take up to 53 days. “We have talked about what can be done to shorten the [process] and help workers [return] quickly,” he said.
Many, though, are refusing to wait and are rushing to the new fast-track centres set up by the Thailand military government. Sa Morn, 25, from Takeo province, was waiting for a broker at the Poipet border yesterday, clutching a pass he had obtained from immigration police.
He had worked in a Thai factory for almost two years before the illegal-migrant crackdown.
Refusing to wait for a passport in Phnom Penh, he returned to the same broker, who obtained the border pass for a $37 fee. “This time, I have a pass so I can return to work in Thailand without any worry,” he said.