Thailand has agreed to refrain from expelling undocumented Cambodian workers and will allow them to seek official status, despite a recent decree imposing harsh new restrictions on illegal migrants, Cambodia’s government said Friday, following a meeting between the two nations’ labor ministries.
On June 23, Thailand implemented a royal decree imposing jail terms of up to five years and a fine of up to 100,000 baht (U.S. $2,941) on illegal workers in the country. The decree was suspended following a backlash from companies and migrant advocates, but thousands of Cambodians have already fled the country, fearing arrest and deportation.
On Thursday, Cambodian Minister of Labor and Vocational Training Ith Sam Heng led a delegation from the ministry’s Commission for Provision of Lawful Status to Cambodian Migrant Workers Residing and Working in Thailand to meet with Thai labor minister Sirichai Distakul in Bangkok to discuss a settlement regarding Cambodian workers.
In a statement issued Friday, the commission said that the Thai government had agreed at the meeting not to enforce penalties against any Thai companies employing undocumented Cambodians or expel Cambodian migrants who are currently working in Thailand.
Thailand will grant a 15-day grace period from July 24 to Aug. 7 to any Cambodian migrant workers and Thai employers who lack documentation to register at Foreign Migrant Worker Registration offices, which will be opened in 10 locations in Bangkok and also in each of Thailand’s 76 provinces.
Cambodian migrants who previously held work permits but changed employers without applying for new status will also be allowed to register with Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, the statement said.
The Commission for Provision of Lawful Status will also launch campaigns next month to provide travel documents to Cambodian workers in Thailand who lack them, allowing them to stay and work in the country.
The commission called on Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand to “remain calm” in coming weeks and to “perform your work as usual.”
According to Thailand’s Ministry of Labour, around 2.7 million documented migrant workers—mainly from Myanmar and Cambodia—are currently working in the country. The ministry estimates that 2 million migrants are working in Thailand without papers.
On Thursday, following his meeting with Sirichai Distakul, Ith Sam Heng told reporters that a recently updated survey by the Thai ministry had found some 1.05 million Cambodian workers in Thailand, only 750,000 of whom are documented.
He applauded Thailand’s new labor law, which he said “prevents human trafficking and exploitation of foreign workers,” but expressed reservations over how quickly it had been implemented.
“It caused Burmese and Cambodian workers to leave out of fear, and also caused concern for employers,” he said.
The Thai government tried to calm the situation by announcing a 120-day grace period on July 1 and extending it to 180 days on Tuesday, but Cambodians have been streaming across the border since the June 23 decree was issued, and Ith Sam Heng said at least 4,000 had returned home through various checkpoints on Thursday alone.
The United Nations’ International Organization for Migration (IOM) said Friday that at least 34,800 Myanmar and 7,360 Cambodian migrants are known to have left Thailand over the past two weeks.
At an IOM-operated center for assisting migrants in the Cambodian border town of Poipet, many arrivals told the agency they had left Thailand fearing arrest, but plan to return when they have obtained the necessary travel documents and visas.
IOM said that returns to Cambodia had “surged to over 5,000 in the past week, including women and children.”
“Some women said that when they next return to work in Thailand, they plan to leave their children in Cambodia with relatives,” the agency added.
Cambodia’s government on Monday closed all checkpoints along its border with Thailand to anyone other than Cambodian migrant workers returning home, in what is seen as a bid to prevent more illegal workers from crossing into Thailand.
The move drew criticism from residents who say their livelihoods depend on traveling between the two countries.
Reported by Sothearin Yeang and Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sovannarith Keo and Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.