Prime Minister Hun Sen yesterday urged Thailand’s courts to acquit 13 Cambodians arrested last week amid the flood of migrant workers fleeing the Thai Army’s feared crackdown on illegal laborers, but promised an even cheaper route back to Thailand for those eager to return legally.
The 13 were arrested in Thailand for allegedly having their work papers endorsed with fake stamps and are expected to be put on trial there. They were among the tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers who have left their jobs in Thailand this month amid rampant rumors that the Thai Army, which took charge of the country after overthrowing the government in Bangkok last month, was rounding up illegal laborers.
During a speech in Phnom Penh yesterday at an event marking International Day Against Drug Abuse, Mr. Hun Sen asked for leniency for the 13—noting that even his signature has been forged on occasion—and asked Thai Ambassador Pakdi Touchayoot to pass the message along.
“So if they could be acquitted, I would thank the Thai leaders,” he said. “Please, His Excellency [Mr. Pakdi], send this problem to His Excellency [Thai junta leader] Prayuth Chan-ocha.”
Mr. Hun Sen said he and General Prayuth had exchanged a few letters in which the general said Thailand was not intentionally driving Cambodians out of the country and would help formalize the status of those still there illegally. The prime minister said he replied to tell the general he endorsed his efforts to protect them.
Faced with more than 240,000 returnees eager for work, Cambodia and Thailand are working together to get many of them back to their old jobs legally.
Last week, Mr. Hun Sen announced that the government was slashing the price of passports for migrant workers from $124 to $4.
Yesterday, he said the passports would cost nothing for those who brought their own photos.
“The $4 is the price to take the photo, but if they bring a photo to the passport office the passport office cannot charge $4,” Mr. Hun Sen said, also urging officials not to charge additional fees or to take longer than the newly stipulated 20 days to turn the documents around.
“Don’t take more than $4 or take longer than 20 days; make them as quickly as possible,” he said.
Mr. Hun Sen urged officials to open up passport offices in the provinces—the country currently has only one office that prints and distributes passports, in Phnom Penh—to speed up the process.
Than Kim Seng, deputy director-general of the Interior Ministry’s passport department, said by phone that his office could churn out 1,500 documents in 10 hours at full tilt, and 2,000 in 13 hours.
He said the ministry was not setting up passport offices in the provinces just yet but was ready to do so if needed.
“The ministry has a plan, but it would not be in all 24 provinces and cities, only some provinces,” he said.
In a scheme the Labor Ministry worked out with more than 40 recruitment agencies earlier this week, the $4 passports will be part of a $49 package the agencies will charge migrant workers to cover the cost of every document they need plus travel expenses.
The flat fee includes $10 for a legal certificate to work in Thailand provided by the Labor Ministry, to be used to qualify for the cheaper passport.
As of yesterday, however, Mr. Kim Seng said the passport office had yet to receive a single certificate.
Even a 53-day timeline for processing the necessary documentation that was laid out by the Labor Ministry this week is proving too slow for some.
In Kompong Thom province’s Stong district, Preah Domrei commune chief Yort Nang said some 1,100 people have returned to her commune amid the Thai exodus. She said she knew of at least 70 who were tired of waiting on the new scheme and had already started back for Thailand without the proper paperwork.
“I am worried because some of the people in my commune have left to work illegally,” she said. “People are waiting on me to give them information [about the new scheme] even before I wake up each morning.”
In another effort to deal with the sudden arrivals, the government is also scrambling to match the returnees with employers.
On Wednesday, the Labor Ministry announced that 16,000 jobs were ready and waiting for them in a number of provinces and venues, including restaurants, factories, casinos, hotels, schools and even karaoke parlors.
The announcement did not mention what wages the jobs offered. The International Labor Organization estimates that workers doing the same job in Thailand make about three times what they would make in Cambodia.