SA KAEW, Thailand — Squatting on the ground with their hands on each others’ shoulders in 15 neat rows, hundreds of illegal Cambodian workers, including women and children, await deportation at an army base near the Thai-Cambodia border.
On a dusty highway, trucks, buses and police cars packed with Cambodians, some with fingers poking through wire mesh windows, roll by.
The International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimates that over the past week 100,000 Cambodians have poured over the border, as the military that seized power in a May 22 coup intensifies lax measures to regulate illegal labor.
The military’s ruling National Council for Peace and Order (NCPO) insists Cambodians are leaving of their own accord and said 60,000 had crossed the border as of Saturday. It estimates there were 90,000 illegals in Thailand.
“Next!” bellows a soldier at the base in Sa Kaew. He records the Cambodians’ details in Thai and fingerprints them.
Mod, 15, is next in line. Born in Thailand, he’s headed to his home in the Cambodian city of Siem Reap with his family of five, including his father, a construction worker.
“Soldiers told us to go home,” he said. “But I want to stay.”
The scale of the exodus and commitment of security forces to enforcing the law risks backfiring on the junta as it seeks to revive a sluggish economy nearing recession.
Registered and illegal foreign labor, mostly from Burma, Laos and Cambodia, is key to the construction, manufacturing and fisheries industries in Southeast Asia’s second biggest economy. Workers perform jobs most Thais are unwilling to do.
The IOM is concerned their return could create a humanitarian crisis and further burden already struggling families in rural Cambodia.
“They [military] seem very efficient. To our knowledge, nobody is being hurt, but one worry is there is no free water and food,” the IOM’s Joe Lowry told Reuters.
“Many are going back to villages with no jobs and will be a strain to their local community.”
Thai governments have tried to tighten regulations and screen those crossing porous borders, but red tape and police corruption—officers turning a blind eye in return for payoffs from employers—have been blamed for the lack of progress.
Many Cambodians told Reuters they feared a military crackdown. The government rejects that and the Foreign Ministry on Sunday said rumors of forced repatriation were “groundless.”
Many laborers left having heard rumors and chose to return home to an uncertain future rather than face jail or fines.
“I’m too scared so I won’t come back,” said Chok Kamchai, 27, who worked as a market delivery man in Samut Prakarn province on the fringes of Bangkok.
Since the coup, the military has repeated its resolve to return stability and revive an economy battered by six months of unrest. Regulating migrant labor is part of its grand plan.
“We must put in order the workforce so that it is correct and legal,” said Werachon Sukondhapatipak, an NCPO spokesman.
“Migrants that go out of their own free will that are illegal, this is a good thing. And soldiers are facilitating their return.”
Residents who have witnessed trucks full of workers lining up at the immigration checkpoint in the border district of Aranyaprathet say the exodus is unprecedented.
“I’ve never seen so many leave at once. We’ve been set up here for five days, they keep streaming in,” said food vendor Chada Jaipluem, 34.
Police and military at three security checkpoints visited by Reuters said those without work documents wouldn’t be jailed.
“Normally they’d have to face the legal system but we’re just allowing them to return home,” said Arnont Phetphanou, a police officer in charge of a checkpoint in Sa Kaew.
People poured out of train carriages at Aranyaprathet’s station, among the 2,000 police were expecting on Sunday alone.
Many carried multi-colored plastic bags and boxes on their heads and shoulders. Others hauled televisions on their backs.
“Some of us don’t have the money to make proper work documents,” said Chok, the delivery man. “I have no work waiting for me in my village, but if I don’t leave now, I could spend months in jail.”
Additional reporting by Athit Perawongmetha and Panarat Thepgumpanat.