More than 150,000 Cambodian workers have fled Thailand carrying their children and a few belongings to return home over fears the junta will crack down on illegal migrants, an official said Monday.
Tired returnees stepped off Thai police trucks and buses in the border town of Poipet in northwestern Banteay Meanchey province where they received a free meal before embarking on the final leg of their journey.
The mass exodus of labourers -- who play a key role in prominent Thai industries but often lack official work permits -- was sparked by an army warning that illegal foreign workers would be arrested and deported.
"The number of Cambodians returning from Thailand since last week has now crossed 150,000," Banteay Meanchey governor Kor Sam Saroeut said.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) confirmed the figure, while Thai officials put the number at around 92,000.
Around 10,000 workers arrived in Poipet on Monday alone where they were given rice, pork and water as they waited for Cambodian military trucks to ferry them home, Saroeut said.
The main route out of the border town was packed with vehicles driving the labourers and their families to provinces across the country in an operation which will continue until midnight.
Seng Phoan, a 28-year-old construction worker who spent around two months in Thailand, was returning to the northwestern province of Battambang as part of the Cambodian army convoy.
"I decided to return because I feared arrest by the Thai army," she said during a pit stop.
"I was worried about my safety. If I can find work here I will not go back to Thailand," Seng added.
Thailand is usually home to around 2.3 million legal migrant employees and a further 800,000 are thought to be working illegally, according to the country's employment department.
The IOM estimates there are up to 180,000 unofficial Cambodian labourers, the vast majority of whom work in construction and agriculture.
- 'Rumours' -
Over the past few days the junta has dismissed as "rumours" it was forcing Cambodian workers out of the country after issuing a warning last week that it viewed illegal migrants as a "threat" who faced arrest and deportation.
On Monday, Thai army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a statement that the NCPO (junta body) has no policy of cracking down on Cambodian workers.
There has been no comparable exodus reported on Thailand's borders with Myanmar or Laos, neighbouring countries whose migrant workers also fill many of the kingdom's manual labour vacancies.
"Something is compelling these people to leave. Rumours are going around like wildfire among the Cambodian community. They are frightened to stay in Thailand," said Bangkok-based Joe Lowry from the IOM.
The fact that the majority of migrant workers in Thailand come from Myanmar but few of its citizens have fled compared to those from Cambodia has raised questions.
"I suspect that the Cambodian mass returns compared to Myanmar workers' minimal returns so far reflects the more sensitive political relationship between Thailand and Cambodia," said migration policy expert Andy Hall.
The coup in Thailand on May 22 followed years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and the family of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.
That Thaksin was a close ally of Cambodian premier Hun Sen -- who once called him an "eternal friend" -- may help to explain the reasons behind the current exodus of workers from Cambodia, said Bangkok-based Hall.
"Clearly lots of rumours have been created and to get so many workers to return is not simple, there is much more to the story and that explains why Cambodians are returning in much higher numbers," he said.
In the past Thai authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal labourers because they were needed when the economy was booming.
But now Thailand is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 percent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2014.