BANGKOK– Thailand’s junta has threatened to arrest and deport all illegal foreign workers, as border officials reported an exodus of Cambodian migrants following last month’s military takeover.
Laborers from neighboring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have played a key role in Thai industries such as seafood, agriculture and construction, but they often lack proper work permits.
From now on any illegal migrant workers found in Thailand “will be arrested and deported”, Thai army spokeswoman, Sirichan Ngathong said.
“We see 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,” she said.
Since the May 22 coup, at least 10,000 Cambodian workers have crossed back, according to Neth Serey, an official at the Cambodian consulate in the Thai border province of Sa Kaeo.
Activists said the migrants were transported in trucks and dumped at the border.
“They feel scared. Some were crying,” said Soum Chankea, a coordinator for Cambodian rights group ADHOC, who met with some of them.
Aid Organizations Concerned
Many of the migrants, including women and children, are effectively stranded at the frontier with no money to pay for their journey home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
There are usually 100 migrants coming through the main Aranyaprathet-Poipet border checkpoint each day, the IOM acting chief of mission in Cambodia, Leul Mekonnen said.
“But we are already seeing more than 1,000 a day and we do not know what the coming days hold.”
Construction worker Chea Loeun, who returned from Thailand on Wednesday, said Cambodians fear being arrested by the Thai army.
“They said Cambodian migrants joined protests there,” the 34-year-old said from the Cambodian border town of Poipet.
“Cambodia workers dare not stay in Thailand anymore.”
Thailand is usually home to more than two million migrant workers, according to activists.
In the past the authorities turned a blind eye to the presence of illegal labourers because they were needed when the economy was booming.
Now, however, Thailand is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2014.
Some workers from Myanmar have also returned home since the coup, said Chalee Loysoong, president of the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee which helps foreign labourers in the kingdom.
“The illegal ones are probably scared so they went back by themselves,” he said.
The army has floated the idea of creating special economic zones in border areas to better manage the movements of migrant workers, although so far details of the plan remain vague.