POIPET CITY, Banteay Meanchey province – Squatting on a dirty pallet, the chaos of thousands of migrant workers swirling around him, Phoeun Phan waited quietly at this border checkpoint Monday for authorities to tell him that the body of his younger sister had been repatriated from Thailand.
Phoem Phoeub, 44, and her cousin, 38-year-old Kan Chean, died on Sunday after the van they had hired to flee a feared crackdown on illegal laborers by the Thai military junta blew a tire and flipped over, according to authorities and local rights group Adhoc. Phoem Phoeub’s husband was also injured in the accident. At least eight Cambodians have now been killed and 19 injured in three separate accidents involving vehicles carrying workers leaving Thailand.
Struggling to make himself heard above the din of loudspeakers directing migrants onto trucks home, buses carrying hundreds of returnees, and relief workers carrying out health evaluations, Mr. Phan described having to tell his niece and nephew that their mother was dead and their father hurt.
“Their children cried when I told them, but I didn’t dare to let them come because it is so crowded here and I think when they see her body they will get even more upset,” said Mr. Phan, who had been caring for the couple’s children while their parents worked in Thailand.
Phoem Phoeub and her husband had left their construction jobs in Thailand at the urging of family amid growing concern over the treatment migrant workers might face under the military junta. Called home by nervous relatives, rounded up by authorities, or leaving out of fear of violence, nearly 140,000 Cambodian migrant workers have fled this week, posing an immense logistical challenge for local authorities and aid workers along the border.
With the numbers of returnees finally leveling off from a daily peak of 45,000 on Saturday to just under 10,000 Monday, a mass operation to get these people home has hit its stride.
“It’s pretty coordinated. It took a while, but it’s a new experience—we’ve never experienced this flood of migrants before,” said Brett Dickson, the International Organization for Migration’s team leader in Poipet. “In a year, you might get 90,000. It’s been that in a week.”
Hundreds of soldiers, police, scouts and youth group members, along with relief agency and NGO staff, have flooded the streets of Poipet City. Every bus, truck and van is met by a team of soldiers and scouts, who swiftly remove luggage and direct the migrants to a tent, where students and monks distribute food and packages of toiletries. A separate group holds up signs bearing the names of provinces, while Metfone agents hurriedly press a free SIM card into the hands of every new arrival.
“We learn where they’re from and organize them by province to return,” said Mom Arun, a 20-year-old student who arrived in Poipet a week ago as a volunteer with the Union of Youth Federations of Cambodia, a group headed by Hun Many, Prime Minister Hun Sen’s youngest son.
More than 200 youth federation members are stationed in Poipet, Mr. Arun said, with more expected to come.
“We work all day, but trade off if we get tired,” he said.
Holding a sign reading “Kompong Speu,” Mr. Arun said he predicted that as many as 500,000 more migrant workers could return in the coming days.
Military trucks lined Poipet’s main road, each one bearing the name of a different province. Some returned migrants, eager to finish what has been a very long journey, rested inside empty trucks.
“I was working and I didn’t hear anything about [a roundup], but our relatives called and said to come home because Thailand is in turmoil,” said Chak Roeun, a construction worker waiting beside an empty Battambang-bound truck with her five-year-old daughter.
Ms. Roeun’s two daughters, aged 21 and 17, and her husband are set to return from Thailand next week.
“I have no idea yet about work,” she said when asked what she would do next. “I have no rice field, I have no farm, so I needed to go to Thailand to work.”
Many people at the border said they intended to return to Thailand as soon as a measure of calm prevailed.
“We wanted to come here, let Thailand get organized and calm down, and then we will go back,” said Sien Ou, who was traveling with his wife and seven-month-old daughter.
“But if I come back to work in Thailand again, I need to get the right papers,” he said.
As Mr. Ou spoke, Chhy Nal fed the baby orange juice that a relief worker had just given them. The couple appeared calm, despite having just disembarked from a cage-like Thai immigration police van jammed with at least 50 people.
“We took turns carrying the baby,” Ms. Nal said.
The couple left their jobs voluntarily, traveling by train for two days before soldiers met them as they disembarked and rounded them up with others. By the time they arrived in Poipet, they had spent nearly nine hours in the van.
“We weren’t arrested in the beginning, but we were scared, so that’s why we came back,” Ms. Nal said.
The lengthy trips have taken their toll on many. At a makeshift clinic set up by the Health Ministry, nurses and doctors treated a steady stream of dizzy and exhausted migrants.
“Since we set up [on June 10], around 2,000 people have come by,” Dr. Leang Lenin said. “When they haven’t had anything to eat, because they have to wait for a long time, they come in feeling dizzy.”
Many have gone a day or two without food, he said. “Some came in unconscious because they hadn’t eaten in three days.”
With the numbers of returnees finally slowing down, waits on the Cambodian side have lessened, and so have the patients.
“Right now, the trucks are standing waiting, so they can continue very fast. If not, we’d have more people here,” he said. “We’ve only treated 2,000 in all these days because they’re in such a rush to get home.”