Thailand Sets Free, Returns 14 Migrant Workers

Fourteen Cambodians arrested last month in Thailand for possessing falsified documents were released Friday morning and transported by the Thai junta back across the border into Banteay Meanchey province.

The Cambodians—reportedly in good health—each received a personal donation of $250 from Prime Minister Hun Sen before making their way back to their home provinces, according to Banteay Meanchey Governor Kousoum Saroeuth.

“The 14 Cambodian workers were released and arrived in Banteay Meanchey’s Poipet City around 9 [a.m.],” Mr. Saroeuth said. “They expressed their joy for being repatriated back to their home country.”

The 14 were arrested about three weeks after the junta took control of the country and ordered Thai businesses to cease employment of illegal migrant workers. With uncertain job prospects and fearing violence and arrest by the Thai military, some 250,000 Cambodians fled back across the border over the past month.

The junta’s announcement on Wednesday that the 14 arrested workers—ten women and four men—would be released from prison came a day after Thai yellow-shirt activist Veera Somkwamkid was pardoned by King Norodom Sihamoni and freed from Phnom Penh’s Prey Sar prison, where he had been detained since 2010.

The timing of the two releases sparked reports of a prisoner swap, which Mr. Hun Sen vehemently denied in a speech on Thursday.

Mr. Saroeuth said that it was Mr. Hun Sen’s personal request to Thailand’s junta for the release of the 14 prisoners that led to Friday’s return.

“Without the government’s intervention and request to Thailand, the fourteen would not have been released,” he said.

The governor said, however, that “the release of the 14 is not a prisoner swap for Mr. Veera,” who was arrested in 2010 and imprisoned for eight years on charges of illegally crossing the border and spying.

General Prayuth Chan-ocha, head of the military government, on Tuesday wrote to Mr. Hun Sen expressing his appreciation for Mr. Veera’s release.

“I would like to convey to Your Excellency my sincere appreciation for your understanding of the current political situation in Thailand including the steps taken by the Thai authorities in managing the recent outflow of Cambodian workers,” the general wrote in the letter.

“Most importantly, I would like to take this opportunity to express my profound gratitude for the act of kindness and compassion of His Majesty [King] Norodom Sihamoni in granting royal pardon for Mr. Veera Somkwamkid in response to the Thai government’s request.”

Thailand’s acting Foreign Minister Sihasak Phuangketkeow paid a two-day visit to Phnom Penh this past week and on Monday requested the release of Mr. Veera at Gen. Prayuth’s request. Mr. Veera flew out of the country with the Thai delegation.

Speaking to journalists at the Ministry of Foreign Affairs in Phnom Penh on Friday morning, ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said that the workers freed by the junta were victims of people smugglers.

He said that during the Thai delegation’s visit earlier in the week, Foreign Affairs Minister Hor Namhong had explained to his counterpart that the 14 had unknowingly been sold fake visas and work permits.

“As a result, the Thai side examined the case and found that [the 14 Cambodians] are the real victims so the Thai side released them and they have arrived in Cambodia just a few minutes ago,” Mr. Kuong said.

Since one-stop shops were set up on the Thai side of the border to fast track the return of Cambodians to work in the country, more than 10,000 have migrated back across the border, according to Mr. Kuong.

But every day, hundreds of illegal workers continue to be sent back to Cambodia by the junta via the Poipet international border checkpoint, said Mr. Saroeuth.

“Sometimes 200 or 300 in a day or up to 1,000” workers are returned, he said, adding that some of those were returning for a second time, after they once again made their way into Thailand without proper documentation.

“Many Cambodian migrant workers have gone through many small checkpoints illegally for a job and have been caught and sent back,” he said.

On Thursday alone, Thai soldiers detained and returned at least 433 Cambodians working illegally in Thailand, according to Neth Sary, the Cambodian Embassy’s consul general in Sa Kaeo province, which borders Banteay Meanchey.

“Of course, there were lots of Cambodians that rushed back to Thailand and were arrested,” Mr. Sary said.

“But they were simply sent back to Cambodia.”

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