Thai Junta Denies Crackdown as 140,000 Migrant Workers Flee

Human rights groups said more than 140,000 undocumented Cambodian workers have fled Thailand amid fears of a crackdown on illegal labor that the military junta has denied ordering.

The workers are arriving at the Aranyaprathet checkpoint in eastern Thailand on trains, buses and trucks, Joe Lowry, a spokesman for the International Organization for Migration, said by phone today. They’re then registered and fingerprinted before being sent across the border in trucks, he said.

“The people arriving look confused and tired,” said Lowry, who has spent the past few days at the border crossing. “It’s keeping pace at about 30 to 40,000 per day over the last few days. It’s very congested in the afternoons.”

Since seizing power, Thailand’s military has cracked down on dissent to restore order after seven months of sometimes deadly political unrest. The National Council for Peace and Order, as the junta is known, also initiated a law and order campaign, transferring officials and clamping down on illegal activities including gambling and transport mafias.

“The NCPO has no policy to crack down on foreign workers,” spokesman Winthai Suvaree told reporters today. “This problem has been accumulating for 10 years,” he said, and the junta “will adhere to human rights and international principles” in dealing with undocumented workers.

Rumors ‘Groundless’

Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs said yesterday that reports of a military crackdown and forced repatriation of Cambodian workers were “groundless,” as were “allegations of them being mistreated with some possibly injured or killed by Thai authorities.”

“The rumor which was spread by unknown sources had caused panic among both Cambodian workers as well as Thai employers,” the ministry said in an e-mailed statement.

Thailand has a total migrant worker population of 2.23 million, including 1.82 million who entered the country illegally, Thanich Numnoi, deputy director-general at the Department of Employment, told reporters today. Of the total, 1.74 million are from Myanmar, 395,000 from Cambodia and about 96,000 are from Laos, Thanich said.

Many of the workers leaving Thailand are returning to their homes for the harvesting season, Patamaporn Ratanadilok Na Phuket, a junta spokeswoman, said June 14. She acknowledged some employers concerned by rumors of a crackdown had sent foreign workers home.

There were an estimated 150,000 undocumented Cambodians in Thailand before the coup, said Lowry of the IOM, which is providing assistance on the border.

Thai authorities were working to provide transportation for workers voluntarily returning to Cambodia, the Ministry of Foreign Affairs said.

“Thai authorities attach great importance to migrant workers from neighboring countries as they not only help to contribute to Thailand’s economy, but also because of the close historical and friendly ties between the governments and peoples of Thailand and those countries,” the ministry said.

— With assistance by Chris Blake

Before it's here, it's on the Bloomberg Terminal.