Despite the Thai government’s temporary backtracking on its harsh punishments of undocumented migrant workers, hundreds of Cambodians working in Thailand continued to pour back into their home country yesterday.
Poipet police officer Sin Namyong said that more than 400 migrant workers had arrived as of 5pm yesterday. This brought the total number of returnees since June 23 to more than 5,400 – not including unofficial border crossings.
The Migrant Working Group in Thailand yesterday sent a letter to the Thai prime minister criticising the harsh laws that have spurred the current departures. The laws are still set to go into effect following a postponement that was extended on Tuesday through the end of the year.
“[This] directionless exodus as a result of the new law has rendered direct ramification on the effort of the government to legalize the undocumented migrant workers,” they wrote.
The group recommended providing opportunities in Thailand for workers with expired documents, and lowering processing times for undocumented workers to gain legal status.
“The government should issue an amendment to the [royal decree] . . . to review, repeal, or revoke certain provisions which shall never help to solve the problems stemming from the management of migrant workers,” they said.
In earlier recommendations, the group had argued for rescinding “all the imprisonment sanctions . . . except for the crime concerning the importation of foreigners to work in Thailand”, as well as lowering fines.
Under the new law, undocumented migrants can face fines of up to $3,000 and five years of imprisonment.
They also argued for an increase to 90 days of the grace period for migrant workers between jobs who wish to work for a new employer. Under the current law, a worker is in the country illegally if unemployed after 15 days.
Human Rights Watch Deputy Asia Director Phil Robertson also pointed to potential restrictions of freedom of movement under Article 15 of the new law, which gives the minister of interior “the authority to require migrants reside in certain zones”.
“The Thai government needs to take this law back to the drawing board and start over, and try to come up with a law that recognizes the vulnerability of migrant workers and the need to involve migrant communities in creating rights respecting laws and policies,” he said in an email.
The Cambodian and Thai labour ministries will meet this afternoon to discuss the new royal decree, according to Sureetorn Tuppasoot, an official at the Thai Ministry of Labour’s Foreign Cooperation Department.
Vorn Veth, the International Labour Organization’s (ILO) national project coordinator, said that this would be a special meeting under the umbrella of a three-year anti-trafficking action plan between the two countries.
“The two governments have to respect people, even when their status is illegal,” he said.
While much of the criticism from rights groups has been directed towards the Thai government, Cambodia has also drawn attention for high passport fees.
The Interior Ministry on Tuesday released a statement clarifying prices – $100 for a passport within 20 days, $150 within 10 days and $200 for a same-day passport. Migrants told The Post this week they were compelled to apply for the expedited passports in order to be back on time for work in Thailand. Only the Ministry of Interior in Phnom Penh handles passport services.
ILO’s Veth said the burden on workers could be partially alleviated if more passport offices opened in the country. “At the moment all the migrants have to go home, and then go to Phnom Penh. That takes a lot of time,” he said.
A largely unused passport office in Battambang closed its door for applicants last year, said Kaing Kosal, chief of the provincial Passport Department. “We used to operate and process to make passport in the previous year, but there is no more passport service [now],” he said, without further explanation.
Interior Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak acknowledged that the fees were high, but said that “the money we are taking from them goes into the state budget . . . It’s the policy of taxation.” He added that when the fees were set, they were high because at the time people who wanted to go to other countries were “rich”.