Authorities in Thailand deported more than 200 Cambodian migrant workers Monday as both Bangkok and Phnom Penh began enforcing new regulations to stem the spread of the coronavirus pandemic in their nations.
The move prompted rights groups to call for assistance from Cambodian Prime Minister Hun Sen’s government to offset expected financial difficulties for the deportees.
Um Sophal, the Police Commissioner for Banteay Meanchey province—which borders Thailand—told RFA’s Khmer Service that all of the deportees returned by foot to Cambodia through the O’Bey Chorn and Malai border checkpoints.
“They were all taken to places to isolate for 14 days in the various districts and the seat of Banteay Meanchey province, Serey Sophorn,” he said.
Earlier this month, Thailand’s Ministry of Labor reported that nearly 120,000 Cambodian workers have registered to work for up to two years in the country since announcing the requirement on Jan. 15 and warned it would take action against any foreigners who fail to do so by Feb. 14. The ministry said the move is part of efforts to prevent the spread of the coronavirus within Thailand’s borders.
Dy Thehoya, a migration program official with Cambodian labor watchdog Central, told RFA at the time that more than 400,000 Cambodians are believed to be working illegally in Thailand and said around three-fourths of them could be thrown out of the country or detained after the registration deadline passes.
On Monday, Sum Chankea, Human Rights Coordinator for local rights group Adhoc in Banteay Meanchey, said the Cambodian migrant workers were returned home because “they faced economic hardship amid the pandemic and unemployment for many months in Thailand.”
“Returning by themselves costs money. Therefore, if they surrender themselves to the Thai authorities, the Thai police will transport them to the border areas free of charge,” he said.
The return comes as Hun Sen issued an order to arrest and hold in pre-trial detention people who cross the border to find work in Thailand and return home.
“People end up working abroad without receiving wages, subject to humiliation and imprisonment, because of human traffickers and labor exploiters,” the prime minister said.
“We must take strict measures to apprehend them all and minimize the problem. This is a way to respect human rights. Then, let human rights workers deal with these bad guys.”
In the past several days, Hun Sen has ordered a high-alert troop deployment along the Thai-Cambodian border in Pailin, Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Udor Meanchey provinces to stop people from crossing the border and to enforce a 14-day quarantine policy.
From the end of 2020 to Feb. 15, 35,665 Cambodian migrant workers have been returned to Cambodia from Thailand. Among them, the Ministry of Health determined that 90 had contracted COVID-19—the disease caused by the coronavirus.
Due to the pandemic, hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers, especially undocumented workers, have found themselves stuck in Thailand. Many have lost their jobs and face strict controls on movement.
Officially, there are about 1.8 million Cambodians working in Thailand, of which more than 400,000 labor illegally—mostly for plantations, landscaping companies, and private homes. The Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL) has said that undocumented workers bring the total to more two million.
Thailand’s strict immigration measures have already left many illegal Cambodian migrant workers unable to earn enough to feed or house their families.
Even those who are registered to work in Thailand say it has been difficult earning a living during the pandemic, as the economy struggles, and jobs have dried up.
Adhoc’s Sum Chankea called on the government to assist Cambodian returnees saying they will otherwise face difficulties earning a livelihood. He added that the government should send agricultural and economic experts to help train them to farm and start businesses so that they can fend for themselves back home.
Reported by RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Sok Ry Sum. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.