Din Phivorn, 20, crammed into a Thai army truck yesterday morning with 15 or so other migrant workers and headed to the Poipet checkpoint he crossed more than two years ago, lured by the promise of work.
Now, dismissed from his employment as a construction worker, he has no idea where he will sleep or how he will earn a living – one among thousands of undocumented Cambodian labourers subject to an unprecedented mass deportation instigated by Thailand’s junta.
Official government figures list 7,500 Cambodian workers deported over the first nine days of June, but rights groups say the number is even higher, with more than 10,000 and counting streaming over the border, more than half of them women and children.
“I’ve been working here for 10 years and I’ve never seen anything like this,” said Suong Sopheap, Banteay Meanchey provincial manager of the Cambodia Women’s Crisis Center. “Normally, one or two trucks sometimes come and drop off workers, but now every day 30 or more come, even at night. It’s constant.”
Turned into what resembles a refugee camp full of temporary tents, the Poipet border office can’t keep up with the continuous truckloads of deposited workers, according to Sopheap, so deportees line both sides of the border in the hundreds, with many, like Phivorn, effectively stranded.
“So many have nowhere to go, but they would rather be homeless in Cambodia than dare to go back to Thailand,” Sopheap said.
For Phivorn, the choice to stay or go was made for him after he was essentially torn from his life in Thailand.
“My construction employer asked us to return to Cambodia temporarily because the Thai military government announced that they would check all companies and if they found illegal migrant workers, they would fine the employer 10,000 baht ($333) for each worker and would arrest and bring the worker to detention,” he said.
Phivorn didn’t need further convincing after a rumour now familiar to most deportees at the compound started spreading: any undocumented Cambodian found by the army may be shot and killed if they don’t leave the country within the next two months.
Cambodian officials from the Ministry of Foreign Affairs yesterday said the government is working to ensure that no undocumented workers face retribution.
“So far, our ambassador has met with relevant Thai authorities to facilitate the return of illegal workers,” Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said. “We ask Thailand not to punish them, just to send them home.”
While Kuong framed the repatriations as an opportunity for Cambodian businesses, migration experts said the draconian policy could backfire for Thailand, which depends on its estimated 3.5 million-strong migrant labour workforce.
“Many industries in Thailand would come to a standstill if the migrants were not here, including the manufacturing industry, seafood processing, fishing industry, fruit orchards, rubber plantations, the list is endless,” said Kanchana Di-ut, program director at Thai NGO MAP Foundation.
But so far, the truckloads of deportees are continuing unabated, and with an estimated 100,000-250,000 undocumented Cambodian workers still in Thailand, local authorities said they can’t do much more than scramble to help those on their way home.