PHNOM PENH – Cambodia’s Prime Minister Hun Sen says at least 250,000 of his countrymen who were migrant workers in Thailand returned home this month under circumstances that initially violated their human rights.
Hun Sen accused Thai authorities of abusing their rights when the exodus began in early June, but said that after complaints from Cambodian authorities, they were treated in a more humane way.
The Cambodians returned home after the military took power in Thailand in late May and announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants and those employing them. The belief spread that all migrant workers, legal and illegal, were at risk of arrest, and rumors circulated that some were beaten or even shot by Thai soldiers.
Thai authorities deny deporting any workers who were legally employed. About 400,000 Cambodians were believed to have been working in Thailand, most illegally.
Both countries are now seeking the migrants’ return to Thailand, which has a shortage of low-wage workers. Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest countries, and cannot employ such a large number of workers.
Hun Sen said the influx of returnees hit Cambodia like a “flash flood,” with no advance warning given by Thailand, even though Thai authorities transported many of the Cambodians to the border.
After the crisis began, however, Thailand’s new leader, army commander Gen. Prayuth Chan-ocha, sent him two letters asserting that Thailand would not use force against the workers and would respect their rights, he said.
Hun Sen said his government would expedite the process of allowing Cambodian workers to apply to legally work in Thailand by reducing the fee for obtaining a passport to $4 to cover the cost of a photo, and process it in within 20 days. They previously cost about $125.
“We do not want to see our Cambodian workers working in Thailand as illegal workers,” he said.
Both countries are now seeking the migrants’ return to Thailand, which has a shortage of low-wage workers.
Meanwhile, Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday urged Thailand’s courts to acquit 13 Cambodians arrested last week amid the flood of migrant workers fleeing the Thai Army’s feared crackdown on illegal laborers, but promised an even cheaper route back to Thailand for those eager to return legally.
The 13 were arrested in Thailand for allegedly having their work papers endorsed with fake stamps and are expected to be put on trial there. They were among the tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers who have left their jobs in Thailand this month amid rampant rumors that the Thai Army, which took charge of the country after overthrowing the government in Bangkok last month, was rounding up illegal laborers.
During a speech in Phnom Penh yesterday at an event marking International Day Against Drug Abuse, Mr. Hun Sen asked for leniency for the 13—noting that even his signature has been forged on occasion—and asked Thai Ambassador Pakdi Touchayoot to pass the message along.
“So if they could be acquitted, I would thank the Thai leaders,” he said. “Please, His Excellency [Mr. Pakdi], send this problem to His Excellency [Thai junta leader] Prayuth Chan-ocha.”
Mr. Hun Sen said he and General Prayuth had exchanged a few letters in which the general said Thailand was not intentionally driving Cambodians out of the country and would help formalize the status of those still there illegally. The prime minister said he replied to tell the general he endorsed his efforts to protect them.