Applications for passports increased by 50 percent on Monday after thousands of Cambodian workers began pouring in from Thailand amid a crackdown on illegal migrants by the Thai junta, an Interior Ministry official said.
Dozens of informal border crossings between Cambodia and Thailand were ordered closed to stem illegal migration, according to the National Police website.
Nearly 4,000 workers returned to the country through Poipet City between June 26—when the spike began—and Sunday, with many saying they had come home to obtain passports so they could legally work in Thailand, said Troy Dooley, a program manager at the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
Mr. Dooley said he believed most of the 3,985 workers had come back voluntarily. IOM estimates that up to 1 million Cambodians are working in Thailand.
“We’re monitoring it closely, working with the provincial government there, and looking at if we need to scale up services or not,” he said.
Prum Chan Sokha, director of the Interior Ministry’s passports department, said up to 1,000 passport applications would be received on a normal day. On Monday, however, the department received 1,500.
The exodus began after an executive decree was ordered by the Thai government on June 23 to clean up the foreign labor market. New labor laws seek to raise the standards of recruiting and managing foreign workers, and reduce accusations of abuse and human trafficking.
All foreign workers are required to have passports, visas and work permits. Workers face prison terms of up to five years and fines of nearly $3,000 for working without proper permits, while employers found to have hired illegal foreign workers can be fined up to about $23,550 per worker. The revised penalties could also see brokers facing up to 10 years in prison and fines of nearly $30,000.
While the Thai government announced a 120-day grace period on Friday, Chin Piseth, deputy chief for the military’s Thai-Cambodian border relations office, said on Sunday that enforcement had never been suspended and Thai authorities’ efforts had only ramped up.
Confusion about the new legislation and recent spates of arrests have sparked fear among the migrant workforce, leading many to flee, said Parnnachat Tipsuk of the Migrant Working Group Thailand. The new restrictions had also put pressure on businesses, she said.
“Employers who hire the migrant workers are fearful of the effect on themselves…thus laying off the migrant workers or sending them back,” she said in an email.
Ms. Tipsuk said her organization observed 3,000 Cambodian workers returning between Thursday and Saturday.
“If the Thai government’s measures are not clear with regard to dealing with the situation, it is likely that more and more migrants will return home,” she added.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng on Monday ordered the closure of 43 crossings along the Thai border to help curb Cambodians entering Thailand illegally, according to the National Police website. Ministry spokesman Khieu Sopheak said he was unaware of the reason for the order, and directed questions to the Banteay Meanchey provincial governor, Soun Bavor, who hung up on a reporter.
Meanwhile, on Thursday, Labor Minister Ith Sam Heng will meet his Thai counterpart to discuss the legalization process for Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, ministry spokesman Heng Sour said in a message.
Mr. Sour said that those returning can register with national employment agencies to find jobs in Cambodia or reach out to private recruitment agencies if they want to return to Thailand legally.
In June 2014, about 250,000 Cambodians flooded back across the border from Thailand after the military seized power in a coup and began cracking down on illegal migrants, many of whom were arrested and trucked out of the country. Several Cambodians died in traffic accidents on the way to the border, and there were unconfirmed reports of abuse at the hands of Thai authorities.
Mr. Sour denied that Thailand was continuing its campaign against illegal migrant workers.
“There is no crackdown on the migrant workers, because the Thai government has postponed implementation of the new regulations,” he said.