More than 1 percent of Cambodia’s population has returned from Thailand since the country’s military took power in a coup d’etat late last month, fleeing a regime intent on cleaning the country’s labor force of illegal immigrants.
Some 200,000 Cambodians, most citing rumors of arrest and violence by the Thai army toward illegal migrant workers, have left or been forced out of their jobs and found their way back across the border.
At the Poipet border crossing, where the vast majority of workers have re-entered the country, the government has shown unusual efficiency, sending soldiers and military trucks to tend to exhausted workers and send them back to their home provinces. Volunteers with the Cambodian Red Cross, Scouts and other youth groups have provided a steady supply of food and water.
Though the Labor Ministry places the number of Cambodian workers in Thailand at about 90,000, estimates from rights groups and the Thai government place the number at more than 400,000. Facing limited job prospects and low wages at home, Thailand’s robust economy has been a magnet for impoverished Cambodians.
“If you do the same job in Cambodia and in Thailand, you earn about three times the salary in Thailand,” said Tun Sophorn, national coordinator for the International Labor Organization. Employers in Thailand also offer benefits, such as free meals and lodging, that aren’t provided in Cambodia. Over the past five years, Mr. Sophorn said, sophisticated recruitment networks have been formed to bring illegal Cambodian workers into the Thai labor force.
For Cambodians, going through the legal process to emigrate into Thailand is often prohibitive. “If you were to go through legal channels, you may take a longer time and spend more money than if you go through illegal channels,” Mr. Sophorn said. “That is why you have such a large undocumented population [of Cambodian workers] in Thailand.”
Now that about half of this migrant population is back in the country, the government is facing the challenge of what do with almost a quarter of a million people who had been making relatively good money and supporting their families through their jobs. “The government has to fulfill their obligation to respond to people who now don’t have the means to feed their family,” said Thun Saray, president of local rights group Adhoc.
“I think it will be hard to find jobs for 200,000 people. It’s hard because they left their country because they could not find work. Now when they are back it is hard for them,” he said. “That is the big job for the government.”
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