Thailand and Cambodia have agreed to quash "rumours" of a crackdown against illegal migrant workers by the new Thai junta after the exodus of nearly 180,000 Cambodian labourers.
The numbers of labourers fleeing home soared after the Thai military regime warned last week that illegal foreign workers face arrest and deportation.
The junta has since insisted there is no “crackdown” and blamed false rumours for the exodus.
The International Organisation for Migration has previously estimated that around 180,000 undocumented Cambodian workers live in Thailand, so it is unclear exactly how many still remain.
Migrants from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar play a key role in Thai industries such as seafood, agriculture and construction, but often lack work permits.
“We need to work closely together to allay fear among the Cambodian labourers in Thailand that it is not the policy of the current administration to crack down on labourers regardless of their (legal) status,” said the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand, Eat Sophea, on Tuesday.
She also dismissed rumours of the shooting and abuse of Cambodian migrants by Thai authorities – among the factors believed to be triggering workers to flee.
“The reports about shootings, the reports about other abuses are rumours and are not true, it’s been taken out of context. We agreed to work together in order to clarify any issues,” Eat said.
During talks with Thai foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow on Tuesday, the two countries also agreed to set up a hotline on labour issues.
“We agreed to set up some form of a hotline … to communicate requests for clarification for assistance to facilitate those labourers who wish to return to Cambodia,” the Cambodian ambassador said.
At the main border crossing between the two countries in Poipet – a bustling town home to several large businesses, casinos and hotels – a few hundred Cambodian migrants arrived in Thai military trucks and police cars on Tuesday morning.
“The number of Cambodians returning from Thailand into Poipet (the main Thai-Cambodian border crossing) in just over a week reached 157,000 by this morning,” said Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey where the checkpoint is based.
Around 20,000 others have crossed the border at O’Smach, a checkpoint some 250 kilometres northeast from Poipet, according to the governor and a senior Cambodian police official.
Thailand’s military regime has denied it has been forcing Cambodian workers out of the country after issuing a warning last week that it viewed illegal migrants as a “threat”.