Poipet is starting to resemble a refugee camp. As thousands of Cambodians flee across the border after a crackdown by Thailand’s security forces on illegal migrants, the town is shrouded in panic.
Nearly every kind of bus, truck or military car that can fit more than 10 people is packed with poor Cambodian labourers desperate to get home. To add to their pain, Poipet has experienced blackouts and torrential rain, turning the streets into muddy tracks and hampering soldiers, medical staff and aid workers who are trying to help.
“Our employer gave us a choice: go home now, or stay and face the soldiers who may arrest or even shoot you,” said Thai Phoun, 28, a construction worker who moved to Thailand last year to earn the equivalent of $10 a day.
Phoun said all 24 workers at his site, including his wife, decided to head back to Cambodia.
But to escape the turmoil in Thailand, they had to pay 1,800 baht per person to the broker who had originally smuggled them across the border.
Phoun was one of just 15,000 undocumented workers to return to Cambodia through Poipet on Friday. He left his job and home to sleep on a piece of cardboard with his wife and one-year-old son.
Since June 1, around 25,000 Cambodian workers have been deported from Thailand, where the junta announced this week that all illegal migrants would be arrested and deported.
About 7,000 women and 2,000 children have so far been part of the unprecedented exodus, each marked with a number in indelible ink on their forearm as they crossed the checkpoint. They also had to thumbprint a document as proof of their departure.
Fear stalked their footprints. Unconfirmed rumours spread like wildfire that migrant workers had been beaten or shot. This fuelled Facebook postings that up to 30 Cambodians had been killed in Thailand since the military seized power on May 22. Government officials from both countries on Friday were unable to confirm the rumour, and denied any shooting incidents.
Prompted by eyewitness accounts, Adhoc, a rights group, said it was investigating nine cases where Cambodian workers were allegedly killed during violent Thai police-led raids. The group said one death had already been confirmed by the victim’s family in Prey Veng.
“We will continue to look into the rest of the cases, and ask for witness accounts for any incidents,” said Chhan Sokunthea, an Adhoc programme coordinator.
There was no shortage of people. Poipet is crammed with the dispossessed. Many workers reported having to pay large bribes of up to $66 to Thai military officers to guarantee safe passage to the border.
“[The military] came to pick up all 300 workers from our [construction] site. First they took our luggage, and then they took us,” said Kim San, 35. “They detained us and told us we would have to pay 300 baht (about $10) each to get out. When we got [to the checkpoint] police threatened us with sticks, telling us to form a line. They treated us like that.”
Despite encountering a growing hostility in Thailand towards illegal workers, many of the Cambodians and their relatives returning home expressed anger and frustration at the Phnom Penh government.
“This isn’t Thailand’s fault, it’s the fault of the leader of Cambodia who cannot provide enough jobs for his people,” said Serey, a vendor and migrant worker. “Earning just five dollars a day is not enough to live on, to buy food and to send kids to school. There will only be more jobless people in Cambodia now who cannot afford to feed their families, and this time they cannot go abroad to earn more money.”
Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Koy Kuong said Thai officials had promised the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok that workers could return if they went through the legal channels. He also added that for now, there were no plans to launch a large-scale work programme in Cambodia.
“We are addressing the immediate issue of transporting workers home first. Maybe after that the Ministry of Labour can talk about jobs,” he said.
Provincial officials also reiterated that with an estimated 125,000 illegal workers still on the other side of the border, they were too preoccupied with getting them home to worry about their immediate futures.
“Once they [are] home the problem doesn’t just end,” said Joseph Lowry, spokesperson for the International Organisation of Migration. “They’re going back to somewhere they left because they couldn’t afford to live there in the first place and they probably aren’t going to be welcomed back, as they’ll be seen as a drain on the community.”
And for some, going “home” isn’t even an option. “Right now, right here is all I have. I don’t have a home, I don’t have work,” said Ney Sarey Roth, 56, while sitting on a wooden pallet, where he slept the night before, during a downpour. “I will have to try hard to just live day by day.”