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Cambodia's migrants face an uncertain future

Thousands of Cambodian labourers have fled Thailand, fearing a 'crackdown' denied by Thai authorities.

Last updated: 19 Jun 2014 14:06
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Some Cambodian migrants have been deported from Thailand in locked police trucks [Abby Seiff/Al Jazeera]

Sa Keo, Thailand/Poipet City, Cambodia - Seven hours after being crammed into a truck with scores of other arrested Cambodian migrant workers, Rim Khim arrived outside the Sa Kaeo immigration police station, groaning and shaking the pins and needles out of his legs.

In less than an hour, he was processed by police, handed a small cup of water and packed - once again - into a caged police truck to make the final seven-kilometre journey across the border into Cambodia.

Around 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned from Thailand over the course of just 12 days. While many say they are coming of their own accord - fearful amid rumours of crackdowns, arrests and even killings by an increasingly strict Thai military government - others have been arrested in what appear to be well-coordinated raids.

"They didn't chase us, they just put us in the truck," said Khim, a 25-year-old who has spent the last four years in Thailand working on a fishing boat. "There wasn't any violence, but they took 3,000 baht ($92) per person. They asked our bosses to pay us, then [forced us to] pay the soldiers."

Khim and more than 30 other Cambodian fishermen were nabbed in Hua Hin province after soldiers raided fishing boats and restaurants in the area. "If we stay on the boats, it's OK, but as soon as anyone climbs onto the banks, they arrested us," he said on Tuesday, adding that being forcefully expelled won't deter him from returning to Thailand.

"I'll go back to Cambodia, make a passport and come back," he said. "It's a good job there - we make between 15,000 and 17,000 baht ($460-520) every two months."

Nom Borai, another young fisherman outside the immigration police station, said he and others tried to elude the authorities by running into the forest. "When the Thai military came, we jumped from the boat and ran into the forest, but they captured us," he said.

Fear of Thai military crackdown forces Cambodians to flee

The Thai government has vociferously denied any such policy. In a statement issued last week, Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee, termed the claims "groundless" and "rumours".

"No crackdown order targeting Cambodian workers had been issued," he said. The statement added that people had returned home for one of four reasons: fear of false rumours, calls from concerned family members, the end of their contracts, or to help plant rice.  

But for those picked up in the raids, such claims ring false. Khim, Borai, and others arriving from Hua Hin on Tuesday morning spoke of having to pay upwards of 3,000 baht ($92) in "fees" after soldiers arrested and processed them locally. "They arrested people only to take the money," said Neu Savorn, 38.

Savorn, a waitress at a Hua Hin restaurant and five others were rounded up by soldiers who later demanded 4,000 baht ($123) in fees. "When we are working, we keep the money with the boss. When we were arrested, they just took all the money from him," Savorn said.

Officials at the Sa Kaeo immigration police station refused to speak, saying they were not authorised to talk with the media.

When journalists approached migrants, police allowed interviews but stayed nearby, appearing to listen in. As a group of young men were loaded onto a police truck, an officer inside the cage shouted at them in Khmer: "Don't talk about chasing and shooting by the Thai military. Just say [it's something you heard] from one mouth to another."

From one mouth to another

The rumour mill has played no small part in the mass exodus of migrant workers. Calls from nervous relatives and the rapid spread among workers of tales of Thai brutality have caused tens of thousands to surrender to police or embark on days-long trips to the border.

I was working and I didn't hear anything about [a roundup], but our relatives called and said come home because Thailand is in turmoil.

- Chak Roeun, construction worker

Sem Makara, the deputy chief of staff of the Poipet immigration police, said the bulk of returnees had come under such circumstances. "Most of them are scared that the Thai military soldiers will arrest them and they volunteer to go back home by themselves," he said.

Chak Roeun, a construction worker who had returned with her five-year-old daughter in tow, said her family had urged her to return. "I was working and I didn't hear anything about [a roundup], but our relatives called and said come home because Thailand is in turmoil." Two older daughters and her husband intended to return next week, she said, after receiving similar pressure from relatives.

In Poipet city, stories involving military brutality are rapidly spreading. As the last of the truckloads of workers pulled in on Monday night, shortly before the border closed, a young man sitting on a motorbike near the crossing drew a crowd as he angrily explained what had really happened during a car crash the day before.

"Thai soldiers shot their tyre," he told the group. "The car wasn't overloaded - Thai cars are too high-quality."

Two returning Cambodian migrant workers were killed in Chanburi province on Sunday, after their car blew a tyre and flipped over. It followed a similar accident one day earlier, which killed six people. In both cases, the story has rapidly become one of Thai viciousness, with many saying they had heard soldiers shot out the tyres.

"I met four others [who were in the van]. They said the Thai soldiers shot their tyres because they didn't stop at the checkpoint. The car then rolled and crashed," said Phoem Phoeurth, 48, who was waiting for Thai authorities to send through the border the body of his 44-year-old sister, Phoem Phoeurb, and his cousin, 38-year-old Kan Chean.

A woman, sitting restlessly at a makeshift clinic, beseeched passers-by for information about her son. "Thai soldiers arrested my son at his construction site on June 9. I don't know what happened to him because now I can't reach him," she said.

An open end

With some 200,000 people returning home, out of a labour force estimated at between 200,000 and 500,000, the question has become: What next?

Cambodia relies heavily on remittances from migrant workers in Thailand, and the Thai economy benefits from the labour supply. Many Cambodians working in Thailand do so simply because they cannot make enough to support themselves and their families in their home country.

Cambodian immigrants flee Thailand

"The next big challenge, the next question, is that all these people have been going to Thailand and they're supporting their family with remittances. It's going to be a big challenge for them to reintegrate back into the local employment labour force," said Brett Dickson, Poipet team leader for the International Organization for Migration.

Political analyst Pavin Chachavalpongpun of Kyoto University predicted that the impact on both nations' economies would be "massive".

"Mostly [it] will cause an impact on local businesses both in Thailand and in Cambodia. Thai border economy relies much on foreign (cheap) workers. By playing the nationalistic card, the military risks facing further resistance from businesses in the locality," Pavin said in an email.

Indeed, even the military government admitted as much, saying in the foreign affairs ministry statement that "Thai authorities attach great importance to migrant workers from neighbouring countries as they not only help to contribute to Thailand's economy, but also because of the close historical and friendly ties between the governments and peoples of Thailand and those countries."

Many of those interviewed on both sides of the border, however, said they intended to remain in Cambodia until the political situation cooled. Others said they would return as soon as they could get their hands on a passport.

Amid the chaos of thousands of returning workers, Boun Sophean and Sok Srey Leak patiently waited with their young daughter for a Cambodian military truck to bring them back to their home province of Kampong Chhnang. The couple had spent the past year working in a fertiliser factory making as much as 900 baht ($28) a day between them.

"Right now, I'm just focused on having my baby," said Srey Leak, who is nine months pregnant. "After that, if it calms down, of course we will go back. If we stay in Cambodia, there's nothing to do."

Follow Abby Seiff on Twitter: @instupor

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