A coalition of rights groups has raised concerns over the decision by Thailand’s military junta to deport Cambodian workers en masse and has demanded an investigation into claims that up to nine migrants were killed by the Thai armed forces during the campaign to repatriate them.
The Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), a group of 21 nongovernmental organizations, said in a statement Thursday that it “deplores” the junta action and “demands that [the migrant] deportation is carried out in a manner which respects their human rights.”
Since the beginning of June, around 40,000 Cambodian workers in Thailand have self-deported or have been forcibly repatriated by the junta government, which took power in a May 22 coup, CHRAC said.
It said that investigators from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)—a CHRAC member—received “credible witness accounts” that up to nine Cambodian migrants had been killed during the deportations, and that “beatings have occurred at the hands of the Thai armed forces.”
“Unfortunately, in times of crisis in Thailand, Cambodians are often scapegoated,” the statement said, adding that while in the past Thai authorities have turned a blind eye to the presence of illegal immigrants in the country to buoy the economy, flagging growth in the first quarter had prompted the mass deportation.
“Many Cambodian workers are now stranded at the border without enough money to get them home,” it said.
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.
Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs in a statement Thursday dismissed reports of violence being used against the Cambodian workers.
It rejected “rumours of [the] Thai army using violence against illegal Cambodian [laborers] as well as capturing them and sending them back to Cambodia,” according to the Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh.
On Friday, Banteay Meanchey Provincial Governor Kor Sum Saroeut told RFA’s Khmer Service that Prime Minister Hun Sen had ordered a column of 150 military trucks to his province on the border with Thailand to assist in relocating the deported migrants to their homes in Prey Veng, Svay Rieng, Takeo, and Kampong Cham provinces.
He said that as of Friday, “tens of thousands of migrants” were deported through the international border checkpoints of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey and another checkpoint in Oddor Meanchey province.
Poipet city governor Ngor Meng Chhoun told RFA that from the beginning of the month until Thursday, the Thai military government had deported 37,200 across his city’s border.
The Thai junta on Wednesday threatened to arrest and deport all illegal foreign workers, saying that a lack of measures to deal with them could lead to social problems, according to a report by Agence France-Presse.
CHRAC on Thursday reminded both Thailand and Cambodia that they are signatories to the United Nations Declaration of Human Rights, which enshrines “human dignity” as a fundamental human right.
“The Thai military violated the human rights of undocumented Cambodian migrant workers when it forcefully expelled them from the country, placing them in crowded trucks” and subjecting them to “cruel, inhumane and degrading treatment as prohibited by the International Covenant on Civil and Political Rights,” it said.
“Moreover, due to inadequate preparation and coordination between the Thai and Cambodian authorities, the migrants workers have been forced to shelter in makeshift tents at the border, and hundreds more workers continue to arrive every day. Water, food, health care, and shelter are severely limited.”
CHRAC called on the Thai government to create a due process for the deportation of Cambodian migrant workers, ensure that their rights are respected, and inform the Cambodian Embassy or Consular in Thailand in relation to the arrest, detention, and any necessary deportation.
Additionally, the statement said, the Thai government should “immediately investigate allegations of killings of Cambodians.”
CHRAC urged the Cambodian government to create an ad-hoc commission to monitor the situation of and address any issues faced by the migrant workers in Thailand, and to develop a plan for their evacuation, including providing them with shelter, food, and water.
It said that the Cambodian government should set up temporary offices to provide emergency support and assistance to the migrant workers and set up temporary offices where they are located and working.
Earlier this week, ADHOC expressed “grave concern” at witness reports of the killing of up to nine Cambodian migrants and the beating of another by the Thai armed forces “as part of the Thai military junta’s campaign to expel illegal migrants working in the country.”
“Returnees have reported violent raids on houses where illegal immigrants are suspected of residing and incidences of the tearing up of documentation entitling Cambodians to work legally in the country,” the group said in a statement Wednesday.
ADHOC’s coordinator for women and children Chhay Sokuntea told RFA that witnesses reported eight migrant deaths in Chonburi and one in Bangkok, adding that the victims were killed by Thai soldiers when they raided the workers’ rented homes.
She said that workers were being “abused and extorted” by both Thai and Cambodian authorities.
“ADHOC is very concerned about the situation of the workers in Thailand,” she said, calling on the Cambodian government to adopt joint measures with Thailand to ensure that human rights are protected during the deportation process.
Witnesses have alleged that of the nine Cambodian migrants killed, at least two were shot to death after they tried to take back legal working papers that Thai soldiers had begun to tear up, the Cambodia Daily reported, quoting Soum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for ADHOC.
However, Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs has dismissed claims that the Thai military shot Cambodian workers, according to a report by China's official Xinhua news agency.
The Phnom Penh Post quoted Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration’s offices in Bangkok, as saying that supplies were running low for the thousands surrounding the border office.
“People are remaining calm, but we need more buses to help transport people back to their home provinces. Many … were making next to nothing in Thailand and simply can’t afford to leave Poipet,” Lowry told the Post.
Since seizing power last month, the Thai military has banned public protests and summoned hundreds of critics for questioning.
The army has proposed special economic zones in Thailand’s border areas to better manage migrant workers, but has provided few details on how to implement the plan.
The May coup ended years of political divisions between the military-backed royalist establishment and the family of fugitive former Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra, a close ally of Cambodian strongman Hun Sen.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.