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Mass exodus

Laignee Barron, Phnom PenhJune 23, 2014

After embarking on perilous journey and spending their last financial reserves to flee instability in Thailand, hundreds of thousands of repatriated Cambodians don't know what comes next.

A Cambodian police officer (L) assists an illegal migrant worker who has returned from Thailand, in the border town of Poipet, in Banteay Meanchey province, Cambodia, 17 June 2014.
Image: picture-alliance/dpa

Chan Thea left Cambodia seven years ago. The 37-year-old sold his scant possessions, borrowed more than a few years' worth of earnings, and paid a broker to smuggle his family into Thailand, where he was lured by the promise of wages high enough to feed and clothe each of his five kids.

But Thea's life as a cassava farmhand in Southern Thailand, fell apart two weeks ago when police came, he said, to rid his employer's farm of all undocumented foreigners.

"We hid in a nearby construction site," Thea said. "But the police told our employer that if they caught us, they would fine him 10,000 Baht (300 USD) per worker, and would arrest and jail us." With their boss telling them to leave and rumors circulating about an imminent crackdown, police raids and even shootings, all the Cambodians working at Thea's farm packed their things into a truck and headed to the border.

Mass exodus

But they weren't the only ones fleeing Thailand in the wake of last month's military coup. Over 220,000 mostly undocumented Cambodian workers have streamed across the border in the past two weeks in a panic-crazed, mass exodus that has yet to relent.

Cambodian migrant workers walk across the Cambodia-Thailand border in Cambodia's western Battambang province on June 15, 2014.
Over 220,000 mostly undocumented Cambodian workers have streamed across the border in the past two weeksImage: STR/AFP/Getty Images

On the Thai side of the crossing, life continues quietly, with no one willing to comment or even acknowledge the caged police vans full of Cambodians en route to the immigration checkpoint. On the Cambodian side, the noise and hustle of an overfilled compound turned aid camp is overwhelming. Military men in fatigues rush to unload the expelled workers, children and scant belongings packed in rice sacks, depositing them into a chaotic, mud-washed swell of returnees.

"People are paying the rest of their salary, the last money they have to get to the border," said Joe Lowry, a senior communications officer for the International Organization for Migration.

'I just want to find work'

Even though the government and NGOs have mobilized emergency food and medical services and directed free trucks to take the workers to their home provinces, many, like Thea have become effectively stranded.

"I don't have a home. I can't go back to my village because I have too much debt," he said while settling his family to sleep on pieces of cardboard under a nearby market. "I don't know what to do, or where to go. I just want to find work."

Others waiting at the border for lost luggage or separated relatives felt relieved at having escaped instability, jail and abuse in Thailand.

Khaing Phana said after she and 300 others at her construction site were caught trekking to the border, Thai police forced them to "pay 300 Baht (2 USD) each or spend the night in jail."

This system of extortion plagues the workers' treacherous route to the border: 200 Baht for noodles, 300 to lie down in a truck, 3,000 Baht for safe passage.

Junta denies accounts

Thailand's military government has staunchly denied such accounts, and has abdicated responsibility for the sudden departures gutting much of its foreign labor force. On Saturday, June 21, General Prayuth Chan-ocha blamed trafficking networks and corrupt officials for deliberately fear-mongering to capitalize on the anxieties of returning Cambodians.

"Brokers and officials love people going around in circles and spending money, but for migrants, it increases risks of trafficking and debt bondage,” said Andy Hall, a Bangkok-based migration activist formerly based at Thailand's Mahidol University.

But the military can't be so easily disassociated from the returning workers, especially after announcing a priority to "regularize" its foreign workforce, allegedly in response to international pressure to crackdown on rampant abuse. Earlier in the month however, the junta warned undocumented foreigners that they faced “arrest and deportation.”

"[The government] want[s] to know who is doing what wherever they are in Thailand...The problem is that undocumented workers who have entered Thailand illegally defy that accounting," said Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director for Human Rights Watch.

General Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, Commander in Chief of the Royal Thai Army, center, addresses his troops at their barracks on Thailand's Armed Forces Day on January 18, 2014 in Bangkok, Thailand.
Thailand's military government has staunchly denied such accounts, and has abdicated responsibility for the sudden departures gutting much of its foreign labor forceImage: Getty Images

But the junta's accounting has had a disparate affect Thailand's estimated three million foreign workers. While the reforms have Cambodians rushing the border, the country's larger group of Burmese migrants remains almost unscathed as they continue to eke out a living on Thai soil.


"Towards the neighboring countries there is a kind of 'color-coding' in which the Lao and Burmese are kind of innocent and non-threatening, but the Cambodians are considered really evil," said Gea Wijers an expert in Cambodian migration at the University of Amsterdam.

This kind of "paranoia" has led to Thailand perceiving the Cambodians as a security threat, an impression fanned in part by politicized and improbable claims that Cambodians have masqueraded as Thai rioters.

"At times of recession, nationalism grows and society tries to find a 'scapegoat' in order to offer consolation and have someone to blame. It's a way for a government to survive," Wijers said.

Difficult ties

The storied political disputes punctuating Cambodian-Thai relations haven't helped ease the situation. As Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen sided with Thaksin Shinawatra in Thailand's political divide, even appointing the deposed prime minister as an economic advisor while also harboring several of his political allies in exile, the recent change of regimes stands precariously ready to inflame bilateral tensions.

Publically however, the Thai government has begun imploring Cambodian workers to return through legal channels, which for now at least, remain prohibitively expensive, riddled with a system of hidden fees, and riddled with corruption.

amily of Chan Thea, Cambodian worker who fled Thailand. The pictures were taken in Poipet, Camodia, Picture: Eli Meixler
For some, like Thea and his family, the solution lies in returning to Thailand and its better paying jobs as quickly as possibleImage: Eli Meixler

So far, the Cambodian response is focused on meeting immediate needs for transportation. But with the torrent of workers continuing to pour into one of the poorest and remittance-dependent parts of the region, the government also faces pressure to adopt a strategy to absorb the sudden shock of excess labor.

"It will take time for the government to create more jobs, but until then, how are [the migrants] going to eat?" said Sum Chan Kea, a coordinator at the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association.

For some, the solution lies in returning to Thailand and its better paying jobs as quickly as possible." Of course I have to go back, and of course I'm scared of arrest," said Thea. "But I make twice as much there for the same work. In Cambodia, the pay is so low that workers can't afford to live."