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Migrant Workers Take Flight Amid Fears of Thai Crackdown

  • Ron Corben
  • VOA News

Cambodian workers ride on military trucks as they prepare to cross the Thai-Cambodia border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew, June 15, 2014.

Cambodian workers ride on military trucks as they prepare to cross the Thai-Cambodia border at Aranyaprathet in Sa Kaew, June 15, 2014.

Thousands of migrant workers have fled back to Cambodia, fearing the Thai military will crackdown on illegal workers. The Thai government has denied ordering the expulsion of workers.

Creating chaotic scenes on the Thai-Cambodian border, tens of thousands of undocumented Cambodian laborers have been heading home, fearing a crackdown and aware of unconfirmed reports of the use of force against illegal labor by the Thai military government.

Tightened border security following the May 22 military takeover caused an initial movement of migrant workers back home. But in recent days the numbers have risen sharply.

International Organization for Migration (IOM) Asia Pacific spokesman, Joe Lowry, said border checkpoints have been overwhelmed.

"About 75,000 people would have crossed over from Thailand - undocumented Cambodian workers. They are coming from different parts of Thailand, being at the border and then being taken to their home provinces by a combination of Army and military trucks, mini-buses that we're hiring to get the most urgent cases homes. It has been a chaotic scene on the border for the last 48 hours and it might continue for quite some time," he said.

Thailand's National Health Commission Office estimates there are as many as four million migrant workers in Thailand, with at least 400,000 from Cambodia and more than two million from Myanmar, also known as Burma, as well as some from Laos. All make vital contributions in industry, agriculture and fishing; areas often avoided by Thai workers.

Sunday, the Thai military and Foreign Ministry issued statements denying there are plans to crackdown on migrant labor. Military government deputy leader General Tanasak Patimapragon says the administration is taking steps to control migrant labor because of concerns over human trafficking and child labor.

In recent years, a U.N. International Labor Organization backed program has worked to regularize Thailand's undocumented labor through a program of work permits and national passports for migrant workers.

Since the military takeover in May, police and officials are reported to have undertaken raids on migrant neighborhoods, including in the northern city of Chiang Mai, and Trat, a Thai border town with Myanmar, asking migrant workers to present identification cards.

Recent comments by Thai military government leader, General Prayuth Chan-o-cha, calling for better workforce regulation and warning illegal workers about their status led to fears of a crackdown.

But an analyst on migrant worker issues, Andy Hall, said a review of policy is needed.

"They've come out with this commission saying that they are setting up this commission to address migration issues. I mean I think it is a good thing because migration as a policy in Thailand has been absolutely chaotic. Hundreds of thousands of migrants have been left with without any policy," said Hall.

A Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman, in a statement Sunday, blamed rumors of a crackdown by "unknown sources" for the panic among Cambodian workers as well as Thai employers. The spokesman also denied any use of force, mass arrests or killings as alleged in news reports.
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