Since the May 22 coup, at least 120,000 Cambodian men, women and children have left Thailand and crossed back to their country amid fears of a crackdown on illegal migrant workers, according to estimates by the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
The exodus began en masse after Thai army spokeswoman Sirichan Ngathong said on June 11 that the junta viewed illegal workers as a "threat" because "there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems." Five days later, the junta denied they were pursuing a "sweep and clean" policy of driving illegal foreign workers out of the country.
In a DW interview, Kim McQuay, The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand, says rumors have played a significant role in triggering the mass exodus, but also points out that, beside refuting the reports, there is little indication that the junta is taking significant measures to stop the flow of migrant workers.
DW: When did the exodus begin?
Kim McQuay: For the last several days, there has been a mass exodus of Cambodian migrant workers from Thailand back to Cambodia. While there have been occasional references to related movements of migrant workers from other neighboring Southeast Asian countries such as Myanmar and Laos on a smaller scale, attention has focused on Cambodian workers, based on the striking scale of movement among this particular population.
How many foreign workers have left the country so far?
Estimates have tended to focus on Cambodian migrant workers, with the figures cited by different formal and informal sources varying by several tens of thousands. Observers have tended to place particular confidence in the accuracy of estimates provided by the International Organization for Migration (IOM), which has swiftly mobilized to provide logistical and other support for the returning Cambodian workers and ease the chaos of movement at Poi Pet and other border crossings.
The IOM estimates that at least 120,000 Cambodians have returned home in the last week, with the volume of movement across the border increasing significantly by the day.
What is driving the chaotic exodus out of Thailand?
The exodus appears to have been propelled by a combination of factors, with rumors playing a significant role. Since the Thai military leadership staged a coup on May 22, the junta has focused considerable attention on the national economy and on addressing issues associated with illegality or lack of enforcement of existing laws and regulations.
While it is not clear at this point just how strict a formal position the junta has taken with respect to illegal migrant workers in general, or to Cambodian workers in particular, recent statements by the authorities have referenced illegal migration among a list of ills to be addressed. Rumors of a pending crackdown appear to have had a double impact: first, on Cambodian workers who fear for their security; and second, on Thai employers who are concerned that authorities could impose harsh fines or other sanctions on businesses that employ illegal migrants.
There are people from many nations working in Thailand. Why are mostly Cambodians fleeing the country?
A combination of factors may account for the mass exodus of Cambodian workers. While estimates vary, it appears that a significant number of Cambodian migrants either failed to enter Thailand through formal channels or allowed their formal legal status to lapse, and that they would accordingly be especially at risk of a strict enforcement crackdown by the junta.
In addition, Cambodia has oddly and indirectly figured in the political tensions that have gripped Thailand for the last decade. A strain of Thai nationalism associated with the anti-Shinawatra Yellow Shirt movement has routinely cast aspersions on Cambodia. This unfortunate phenomenon has most recently focused on unsubstantiated allegations that the pro-Shinawatra Red Shirt movement enlisted Cambodian migrants to swell its ranks.
What can you tell us about the people who are fleeing?
Like those from other neighboring countries, Cambodian migrants come to Thailand with the hope of escaping poverty. While they may earn more in Thailand than they would at home, the modest opportunities that await place them at the bottom of the Thai economic strata. There have been reports in recent days that returning Cambodians face severe economic hardships as they cross the border with little more than the shirts on their backs, with many lacking the resources needed to travel from the border to their home provinces.
How important are these workers for the Thai economy?
Estimates suggest that Thailand hosts as many as three million migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, Myanmar, and other neighboring countries, a significant percentage of whom entered Thailand illegally. With Thailand's advancement to upper middle income status, migrant workers fill a bottom niche that is critical to several branches of the Thai economy, including unskilled industrial labor, the construction industry, seafood processing, and domestic labor.
The post-coup exodus of Cambodian workers has stirred a wave of concern as observers reflect on the implications for the Thai economy if the exodus should spread more broadly through the migrant labor population. To the extent that recent events have been partly by fueled by unchecked rumors, one hopes that a campaign of reliable information will ease the concern that must be surely be building within the broader migrant population, as well as putting remaining Cambodian workers at ease.
What is the junta doing to stop the exodus?
While the authorities have been swift to refute reports that migrant workers have been subject to threats or abuse and to underline the contributions of migrant labor to the Thai economy to quell concerns about the broader economic implications, there is little indication that the junta is taking significant measures to stop the flow of migrant workers out of Thailand.
How likely is it that these workers will return to Thailand under the military junta?
In any context of this kind, a mass exodus can be swiftly triggered while a reverse movement tends to be infinitely slower and hesitant. Considering the fact that migrant workers often go to a considerable degree of effort and make substantial personal investments to travel to another country in hope of economic opportunity, one imagines that it will be no easy thing for Cambodian or other migrant populations to return to Thailand, even if they were made to feel very welcome and secure.
Kim McQuay is The Asia Foundation's country representative to Thailand.