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Thailand, Cambodia agree to quash 'rumours' after worker exodus

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(Globalpost/GlobalPost)

Thai and Cambodian officials agreed Tuesday to quash "rumours" of a crackdown by Thailand's new junta on illegal migrant workers after more than 185,000 Cambodians fled home.

The migrants -- who help keep major Thai industries afloat but often lack official work permits -- have streamed across the border since Thailand's 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 of what could be, by some estimates, the entire undocumented Cambodian population in Thailand.

"We need to work closely together to allay fear among the Cambodian labourers in Thailand," said Cambodian ambassador Eat Sophea on Tuesday, adding it was not the policy of the Thai administration "to crack down on labourers regardless of their (legal) status".

After talks in Bangkok with the Thai foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow, she also dismissed rumours of the shooting and abuse of Cambodian migrants by Thai authorities -- among the factors believed to be triggering the exodus.

"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.

The two countries also agreed to launch 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 ambassador said.

- 'Scared of being arrested' -

At the main border crossing in Poipet -- a bustling town home to several large businesses, casinos and hotels -- around 9,000 Cambodian migrants arrived in Thai military trucks and police cars on Tuesday.

The total number of Cambodians returning from Thailand via Poipet and smaller border crossings has now reached 188,000, said Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of the northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey where the main checkpoint is based.

Bun Veasna -- who was employed as a construction and seafood worker in Chonburi province southeast of Bangkok -- was escorted into Poipet by Thai police along with his brother on Tuesday.

The 32-year-old said he decided to come home after hearing that the Thai army would arrest all illegal Cambodian migrants, and that some had even been killed by the military.

"All the Cambodians in my area have returned home. We were scared of being arrested and jailed or killed there. We did not feel safe," he said.

Thailand's military regime has strongly denied it has been forcing Cambodian labourers out of the country and dismissed reports of killings as "groundless rumours".

Last Wednesday it had threatened to arrest and deport all illegal foreign workers, but the foreign ministry has since stressed the "great importance" of the role which migrant workers play in the economy.

Pot Sith, another Cambodian returnee who worked in Thailand without a permit, told AFP he fled the country after army officers warned him he faced arrest.

"They asked us to return home, otherwise they would arrest us. So we felt scared and had to return," said Pot, who worked at a brick factory in Chonburi.

In the past Thai authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal labourers because they were needed when the economy was booming.

But now the country is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 percent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2014.

The International Organisation for Migration has previously estimated that around 180,000 undocumented Cambodian workers live in Thailand. It is unclear exactly how many now remain.

There has been no comparable exodus to Myanmar or Laos, which are also major sources of manual labour.

This has raised questions among some analysts, especially given that the majority of migrant workers in Thailand come from Myanmar.

"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," migration policy expert Andy Hall said on Monday.

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.

Thaksin was a close ally of Cambodian premier Hun Sen and this may help to explain the exodus of Cambodians, said Hall.

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http://www.globalpost.com/dispatch/news/afp/140617/thailand-cambodia-agree-quash-rumours-after-worker-exodus