Tens of thousands of Cambodians are fleeing neighbouring Thailand to return home, fearing a crackdown on migrant workers under Thailand's new military government, a senior Cambodian official has said.
More than 110,000 workers have returned this month through the border crossing at the western Cambodian town of Poipet, said Kor Samsarouet, the governor of Banteay Meanchey province, on Sunday.
About 40,000 crossed over on Friday alone, and 10,000 returned to Cambodia on Saturday morning, he said.
"They are returning en masse like a dam collapsing. They have never come en masse like this before in our history," Samsarouet told AFP news agency by telephone.
"They said they are scared of being arrested or shot if they run when Thai authorities check their houses," he said.
Soum Chankea, a coordinator for Cambodian rights group ADHOC who has met many workers at the border, said the number of migrants returning home was growing each day.
"They keep coming, more and more. Thousands more have arrived in Poipet this morning," he told AFP by telephone.
Activists said the workers had been forced out of the country, but Thailand denied the accusation.
The UN-affiliated International Organisation for Migration (IOM) gave similar figures.
Earlier in the week, it said more than half of the migrants were women and children, the AP news agency reported.
Trigger for the exodus
The trigger for the exodus seems to have been comments by Thailand's military government, which took power in a coup last month, that it would crack down on illegal immigrants and those employing them.
Several were reportedly fired from jobs and sent home, and the belief spread that both legal and illegal workers were being ejected.
The numbers of those fleeing swelled as unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Thai authorities had shot dead or beaten several Cambodian workers.
Thai authorities have denied the rumors and sought to quell concerns about a crackdown, adding that they have plans to systematise migrant labour.
The Cambodian government has sent hundreds of trucks to Poipet to take the workers home.
Cambodians, working both legally and illegally, fill low-paying and undesirable jobs shunned by most Thais, as do migrants from Thailand's other poor neighbours, especially Myanmar.
Cambodian Labour Minister Ith Samheng told reporters that about 200,000 Cambodian migrants had been working in Thailand, just 80,000 of them legally.
Other estimates of the number of workers are higher.
Thai immigration authorities joined hands with the military to help transport the migrants to the border, said Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee.
Wannamethee stressed that the process was meant to provide convenience to the Cambodian workers, not to forcibly expel them.
Thailand was seeking to avoid "exploitation from smugglers" and "human trafficking problems", he said.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee, a coalition of 21 nongovernment organisations, saw the matter differently, posting an open letter on Thursday deploring the way the migrants were being treated.
It accused the Thai military of "cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment" towards the workers.