Thai authorities have arrested and are preparing to try 13 Cambodian migrant workers who were allegedly caught with fake stamps on their work papers as they tried to return home, Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong confirmed on Friday.
The government also announced a plan to subsidize the cost of passports for would-be migrant workers and students, meaning the documents will now cost only $4 instead of the usual $124.
The arrested workers are just some of more than 200,000 Cambodians—many of them undocumented or illegal laborers—who have fled Thailand since a military junta came to power last month, sparking fears of violence and arrests. To date, at least 225,000 workers have crossed back into Cambodia, according to officials.
“Thirty-eight migrant workers were arrested in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province last week,” Mr. Kuong said by telephone on Friday morning, before later amending the figure to 13, based on new information. He said the group had used authentic passports.
“None of them knew their working visas were fake, because they did not go to renew their passports by themselves,” he said.
“They asked a ringleader to renew their working visas, so we need to find the ringleader, but we do not know yet whether he is a Cambodian or Thai national. I heard that the Thai authorities are preparing to send them to the court,” he said, adding that Cambodian officials in Thailand are trying to find a lawyer to represent the group.
In December 2012, Thai authorities began issuing identity cards to Cambodian workers who lacked proper documentation as a way of affording them legal status to work in Thailand. Two months later, the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok said it would issue passports for $74 instead of the $124 people were paying for them in Phnom Penh.
Still, the Foreign Ministry estimates that of the estimated 400,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, only about 90,000 have the necessary documentation.
In a sub-decree signed by Prime Minister Hun Sen and released by the Council of Ministers on Friday, another solution was presented. The government will now only charge $4 for passports for use by migrant workers and students awarded scholarships, and the documents will be ready 20 days after they are applied for.
“Having granted ordinary passports for migrant workers who must go to work abroad legally, the tax will be the state’s burden, but the migrant workers must pay $4 for the cost of…photographs,” Article 1 of the sub-decree says.
Tith Sothea, spokesman for the Press and Quick Reaction Unit, said the decision had been made in an effort to “reduce the burden” on workers and students who want to go abroad.
According to Interior Minister Sar Kheng, at least eight Cambodians have been killed and 19 injured in traffic accidents while fleeing possible unrest, and although the Thai authorities have denied a policy exists to kick out illegal migrant workers, returning Cambodians have spoken of raids, extortion, arrests, threats and shootings.
In a statement released Friday to coincide with a meeting held to discuss the unfolding situation at the border, rights group Adhoc said it understands that the Thai authorities have the right to repatriate undocumented workers.
“However, the Thai junta should have done so humanely and with respect to the inherent human dignity of Cambodian people,” Adhoc said.
“The junta should have prepared and made plans for the repatriation of Cambodians, announcing such a move in a timely manner and preparing for their repatriation properly, instead of packing them into trucks like animals. The Thai junta should have coordinated with the Cambodian government to achieve this.”
At the meeting, a recently returned illegal migrant worker, who declined to give his name for fear of retribution, said he worked in Thailand as a construction worker for a year, but fled after a shooting incident.
“On June 10, in the morning, I heard the sound of three gunshots—about 20 minutes later, some workers came to the work site and told us that three Cambodians had been shot,” he said.
Human Rights Watch (HRW) on Friday called on the Thai junta to “urgently improve human rights protections of migrant workers to end their mass flight from the country.”
“More than 200,000 Cambodian workers have returned to Cambodia, according to the International Organization for Migration and Cambodian police,” the HRW statement says.
“At least eight fleeing migrants have died in traffic accidents on Thai roads, and many of those who crossed the border into Cambodia had been in squalid and unhealthy conditions before they were able to move to other parts of the country.”
Pakdi Touchayoot, Thailand’s ambassador to Cambodia, could not be reached for comment.
(Additional reporting by Kuch Naren)