ARANYAPRATHET DISTRICT, Thailand – As a caged immigration police truck pulled up to the police station here, Sin Many sprang up from his seat, relieved that his ordeal was nearly over. In less than an hour, he and around 50 others would cram into the Cambodia-bound truck, cross the border, and arrive home at last.
“We stayed on the floor last night,” he said, explaining how his group of detainees arrived too late to be processed and had to sleep in the concrete courtyard of the Sa Kaeo province immigration police station.
“They didn’t arrest us, but in that area we heard of Thai military arrests and volunteered to come back,” said the 36-year-old fisherman.
As over 100,000 migrant workers have streamed back to Cambodia this week to flee a feared crackdown by the military junta that seized power in Thailand late last month, Thai immigration police have become adept at processing and transporting workers.
Mr. Many was swiftly loaded onto a police truck for the final 10-km journey to the border as another truckload of workers arrived from Hua Hin, groaning and stretching as they spilled out of the truck after a seven-hour journey with no stops.
The Thai military government has denied any policy to crack down on illegal migrants, and insisted in a statement last week that claims of arrests or violence against workers were groundless.
Instead, the National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta has dubbed itself, said it had merely embarked on a “regularization” program of foreign workers by ordering employers to compile lists of migrant laborers and submit them to Thai authorities.
But despite the NCPO’s assurances, on-the-ground implementation of the directive has involved arrests and attempts at extortion, Cambodians inside the Sa Kaeo police compound said.
Rim Khim, 25, said he and 34 other fishermen were arrested in a raid carried out by Thai soldiers.
“If we stayed on the boat, it’s OK. But we climbed onto the bank and they arrested us,” said Mr. Khim, who added that there was no violence but soldiers extracted 3,000 baht (about $92) per person in “fees.”
“They asked our bosses to pay the workers, then took the money,” he said.
“They took it when they were making our papers,” explained Nom Bora, 27, another fisherman.
Workers who didn’t have enough were forced, ironically, to have the money remitted to them from family in Cambodia. Mr. Bora said he had 4,500 baht (around $139) sent to him to pay off the soldiers.
“They made arrests only to take the money,” said Noeu Savorn, a 38-year-old waitress who was arrested along with five others during a raid on her restaurant. Ms. Savorn was forced to pay 4,000 baht (around $123) in fees.
“When we’re working, we keep the money with our bosses, but when they arrested us, the soldiers just took it all,” she said.
Between 300,000 and 400,000 Cambodians are currently working in Thailand, Interior Minister Sar Kheng said Tuesday in a speech at a graduation ceremony in Phnom Penh.
He said the Thai junta must take responsibility for the mass exodus of workers from Thailand to Cambodia this week, which has seen at least 150,000 migrants cross the border for fear of arrest. At least eight Cambodians have been killed and 19 injured in traffic accidents while fleeing.
“I think that leaders of the Thai military must be responsible for all the problems that happened, including the deaths,” he said. “In fact, they are illegal [workers], but comparing illegality with people’s lives, they cannot be compared with each other. Human life is very valuable.”
“In the future, if our people want to go work abroad, I appeal to them not to go illegally,” Mr. Kheng said, adding that the Interior Ministry must be more receptive to common complaints from migrant workers that Cambodian passports are too costly and difficult to obtain.
As perhaps 60 people disembarked from the truck coming from Hua Hin on Tuesday, Thai police rapidly lined them up and took down their details. The office had processed 74,241 people as of Monday—a figure far below Poipet City authorities’ count of 151,180 incoming workers.
While police refused to speak to reporters, they permitted interviews with returning migrant workers. Squatting silently in three straight lines, deportees spoke in hushed tones as Thai police walked past handing out cups of water.
“In the political chaos, the military arrived to arrest people; they came to crack down on another restaurant and we heard that if you run, they’ll shoot. So we were afraid,” said Chea Chieng, a waitress in Hua Hin province who voluntarily turned herself in to local authorities.
“I don’t have anything—papers, passport—so I was very afraid…. They warned me, even though I speak Thai [I’d be arrested]. We have no choice, so we surrendered to the soldiers.”
At the Hua Hin military office, she said she and others waited until 2 a.m., when they were loaded onto the caged police truck where they would remain trapped until nearly 9 a.m.
“They didn’t make any stops. If you have to go to the toilet, they won’t stop. So we just stay patient until we’re here,” she said with a shrug.
In less than an hour, the group from Hua Hin had been loaded onto another police truck and sent to the border. But police, too, appear well aware of the stories the returning migrants are telling.
Before sending one truck on its way, an unseen Thai officer could be heard shouting: “Don’t talk about chasing and shooting by the Thai military.”
(Additional reporting by Khy Sovuthy in Phnom Penh)