Cambodia and Thailand on Tuesday sought to downplay reports of a crackdown on illegal Cambodian workers by Bangkok’s new military junta as the two governments agreed to establish a hotline to communicate on labor issues afflicting the two neighboring countries.
Eat Sophea, Cambodia’s ambassador to Thailand, was summoned to the Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs to discuss the issue as the number of illegal Cambodian workers returning across the border since June 1 hit 200,000 on Tuesday, according to Cambodian Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Kuy Koung.
The Cambodian workers—who prop up Thailand’s industries, but are mostly living in the country without proper documentation—have fled or have been forcibly repatriated by the Thai junta, which threatened illegal workers with arrest and deportation last week after taking power in a May 22 coup.
Kuy Koung said that the Thai junta had agreed to “establish a hotline for communication” on labor issues, and assured Cambodia that it “doesn’t have plans to deport all Cambodian laborers.”
“They simply want illegal immigrants to become legal immigrants in order to avoid labor exploitation,” he said.
The Thai side also urged those workers who have been deported since June 1 to return with legal paperwork, Kuy Koung said, adding that Cambodia’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs is working to ensure that illegal workers in Thailand become registered.
“So far we have about 50,000 workers already registered,” around 20,000 of whom have returned to Thailand, he said.
Speaking after talks with foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow in Bangkok, Eat Sophea dismissed reports of the shooting and abuse of Cambodian migrants by Thai authorities, which some have said triggered the mass exodus.
“The reports about shootings, the reports about other abuses are rumors and are not true, it's been taken out of context,” Agence France-Presse reported the ambassador as saying.
“We agreed to work together in order to clarify any issues.”
Meanwhile, Cambodia’s Minister of Interior Sar Kheng on Tuesday urged authorities across the country to do whatever was in their power to facilitate the return of migrants to their home provinces.
“In order to help the returnees, the government would like authorities at the provincial level to welcome them at the border checkpoints and to provide them with transportation so they may return home,” Sar Kheng said in a statement.
“Please provide them with food [and] medication and make sure they return safely.”
Sar Kheng also called on local authorities to ensure that potential migrants are better informed about the situation they face working across the border in Thailand.
“[Authorities] must also disseminate information to prevent Cambodians from crossing the border to Thailand illegally and explain the consequences that might arise from doing so,” he said.
According to the World Bank, some 20 percent of Cambodia’s nearly 15 million population live in poverty, earning below U.S. $2.00 per day, and many have been tempted to find work in Thailand, where they can earn significantly more than they would at home.
Reuters news agency quoted Sar Kheng as slamming the Thai army for never consulting Cambodia about sending workers home.
“The army has rushed to deport workers who are considered illegal without prior notice or discussion with Cambodia or at least making contact with provinces along the borders,” he told a university graduation ceremony in the capital Phnom Penh.
“I think the current Thai army leadership must be held responsible for all the problems that have occurred, including the loss of life.”
Thai police say six Cambodian workers and a Thai driver were killed last weekend when a pick-up truck overturned on its way to the border. Thirteen people were injured.
Last week, the Cambodian Human Rights Action Committee (CHRAC), an umbrella group of 21 nongovernmental organizations, claimed that investigators from the Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC)—a CHRAC member—had 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.”
Reported by Ses Vansak for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Samean Yun. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.