Migrant Workers Face Thai Military Crackdown

Thousands of Cambodians are flooding back from Thailand as its military government cracks down on migrant workers based on new foreign labor laws, escalating its enforcement from just using police officers to now enlisting the military, an official said on Sunday.

Thailand had previously accepted temporary “pink cards” that enabled Cambodians without passports or Thai visas to enter the country to work. An executive decree ordered by the Thai government on June 23, however, requires all foreign workers to have passports, visas and working permits, with both employers and employees facing heavy fines for violations, according to the Bangkok Post.

Cambodian migrant workers arrive at the Poipet border crossing in Banteay Meanchey province in 2014. (John Vink)

Although some local media reported that Thai authorities announced on Friday a suspension of arrests during a 120-day grace period, Chin Piseth, deputy chief for the military’s Thai-Cambodian border relations office, said the crackdown was still in force over the weekend.

“There is no suspension. Even now, they are ordering the military to take operations everywhere,” he said. “Before it was police, now [they] use the military,” he added.

Mr. Piseth said up to 500 Cambodians were returning through the major international checkpoints along the Thai border each day, including yesterday.

“There were a lot of people flooding in within a few days,” he said. “There are still hundreds of people coming, like Len checkpoint [there] is about 400 to 500 people per day,” he said, using the Thai name for the Doung International Checkpoint in Battambang province’s Kamrieng district.

He said the other main checkpoints, such as Poipet International Checkpoint, were seeing similar numbers of Cambodians returning home.

“Soon, it will be a lot more than this,” he said, claiming Thai authorities had ramped up their crackdown over the past few days.

Two weeks ago, Thai authorities arrested more than 200 Cambodians at a construction site for having either improper or no documentation, with 42 set to face court, according to the Foreign Affairs Ministry.

A statement released by the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand on Saturday called for calm among the Cambodian migrant population amid talks between the two countries’ governments.

“Please, all Cambodian workers, remain calm, because the Cambodian Royal Embassy in Thailand and the Cambodian Labor Ministry are discussing with the Thai authority to compromise in order to avoid the inspection of Cambodian workers who don’t have enough documents to stay and work in Thailand,” it said.

The statement also advised Cambodian laborers looking to work in Thailand to go through recruitment agencies that have been given licenses from the Labor Ministry in order to avoid being cheated by brokers.

Thailand’s new laws have created confusion among the migrant working community, and many employers have started laying off hundreds of migrant employees, according to a statement released on Friday by Thailand-based NGO Migrant Working Group (MWG).

“Legal loopholes have also been exploited by law enforcement officials to commit extortion against the workers and the employers,” it said.

“Therefore, MWG is calling on the government to urgently address the issues and to seek other alternative solutions other than severe labour crackdown since many problems have stemmed from a lack of clarity as to the policy for the management of migrant workers,” it added.

Political analyst Ou Virak said the Cambodians who have been pouring back into the country likely remember tough actions taken by the Thai junta in the past and were rightfully scared of a repeat.
“In previous crackdowns, they were trucked across the border, so why would they not like to come back on their own? They remember how they were treated back then,” he said.

In June 2014, after seizing power in a coup and imposing martial law, the Thai army initiated a sweeping program to clear the country of illegal migrants, rounding up and forcibly deporting some Cambodians in trucks. About 250,000 Cambodian workers fled Thailand within the space of a few weeks out of fear of arrests and violence.

The current crackdown was probably equally as heavy-handed, Mr. Virak said.

“There must be some abuses—the word that’s going around is harassment…. It’s so easy for these things to be passed on,” he said.

“It’s pretty sad, because the previous crackdown a few years ago should have been a wake-up call…. Obviously [government discussions] didn’t really happen to the level we are happy with,” he said.
Mr. Virak said “incompetence” and a lack of services from both governments was partly to blame for the high levels of undocumented Cambodian migrant workers.

“Thailand is one of the most important countries to Cambodia—we should have bigger embassies, more consular support,” he said. “The consular support is almost non-existent.”

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