Phnom Penh: More than 140,000 Cambodians had fled jobs in Thailand to return home as of Monday, fearing a crackdown on illegal migrants under junta rule, an official said.
The mass exodus of workers -- who play a key role in Thai industries such as seafood and agriculture but often lack official permits -- comes amid an army warning of arrest and deportation for illegal foreign workers.
"By the middle of last night the number of Cambodian migrants from Thailand reached 142,000," Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of Cambodia`s northwestern province of Banteay Meanchey, said on Monday.
More than 2,000 workers arrived at the Poipet border crossing this morning alone and were waiting for government-organised transport to return home, he said.
The highway out of the border town was packed with military trucks ferrying men, women and children to their home provinces.
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.
Thai army spokesman Winthai Suvaree said in a statement Monday that the NCPO (junta body) has no policy of cracking down on Cambodian workers.
The junta has dismissed "rumours" it was forcing Cambodian labourers out of the country after issuing a warning last week that it viewed illegal migrants as a "threat" who faced arrest and deportation.
Thailand is usually home to more than two million migrant workers, according to activists, with many manual labourers coming from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar.
On May 22 the Thai army seized control of the government in a coup following years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and the family of fugitive former prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.