PHNOM PENH, Cambodia – The number of Cambodians who have returned home from Thailand this month after a threatened crackdown on foreigners working illegally has topped 160,000, a Cambodian official said Monday.
Cambodian Foreign Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said the workers returned through several border crossings, with the one connecting the town of Poipet with Thailand's Aranyaprathet accounting for 142,000.
Thai officials insist the cross-border movement is voluntary and is not forced repatriation. They say Thai military and government resources were used to transport workers who decided to return home after being laid off because they were working illegally. Other workers assumed they were being forced out and rumors arose they were being abused, triggering the mass exodus, they say.
The numbers rose last week when rumors — unsubstantiated so far — spread that Thai soldiers had killed as many as nine Cambodians and threatened and beaten others.
Thailand announced it would crack down on foreigners working illegally after the army took power in a May 22 coup.
Cambodian rights groups say Thai authorities are coercing the Cambodians to go home and abusing them. Considerably more than 200,000 Cambodians are estimated to be working in Thailand, most illegally.
Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek Wannamethee told The Associated Press on Monday that allegations that Thailand was deporting migrant workers were "unfounded' and that they were leaving voluntarily, "facilitated by the Thai side in terms of transportation to the border checkpoints."
One Cambodian worker contacted by phone in Poipet, where he arrived from Thailand on Monday, told a slightly different story.
Chem Cheda, 20, said he had been part of a construction crew in Samut Prakarn, a booming suburb of Thailand's capital, working illegally. He said he enjoyed the job, for which he made 9,000 baht ($300) a month.
On Friday, he said, Thai soldiers — he believed they were military police — came to his workplace and talked to the Thai manager. The manager then informed the employees that all Cambodians who were working illegally must return home by order of the military.
"When I first heard this from the owner, I felt OK, I didn't feel scared or afraid," he said. "But when I saw the soldiers approach me, I felt scared. I decided then to go with them straightaway, without complaint."
He said the soldiers did not mistreat him, and took him to a railway station, from where he was transported to the border.
Chem Cheda said he plans to apply to return to work legally in Thailand. Thailand's military government says it is working on a plan to create a systematic legal framework for foreign workers.
Because of its relative wealth, Thailand attracts many migrants from neighboring countries, especially Myanmar, who are seeking a better life. But only Cambodians are currently leaving in large numbers, Thai Foreign Ministry spokesman Sek said.