Poipet: 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.
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, Sarouet 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 three million migrant workers, according to the IOM, with an estimated 180,000 unofficial Cambodian labourers. Many work in seafood and agriculture industries.
The junta has dismissed as "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.
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.
"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 majority of migrant workers in Thailand come from Myanmar but few of its citizens have fled the country in the past week when compared to Cambodians, according to migration policy expert Andy Hall.
"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," he said.
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 rumors 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.