Thousands of Cambodian workers are being extorted as they flee Thailand and return home hoping to secure valid employment papers and passports amid a crackdown on illegal migrants in the country.
The mass deportation is not as severe as the last such case in 2014, when more than 200,000 workers left Thailand in the wake of the military coup there, however migrants have been streaming over Poipet International Border Checkpoint in Thai immigration police trucks.
More than 50 migrants were packed into each truck, along with their children and luggage.
At least five immigration police trucks have been transporting workers to the Poipet checkpoint alone each day.
More than 4,200 migrants have been sent home from Thailand through Poipet since Wednesday of last week.
The mass exodus comes after Thailand announced it would be implementing a royal decree on the management of foreign workers, which came into force earlier this month.
According to the Bangkok Post, the executive decree aims to raise recruitment and management standards and reduce accusations by the international community of abuse and human trafficking.
It contains harsher punishments on violators, with prison terms and fines ranging from 400,000 to 800,000 baht ($11,500-$23,000).
Thai National police chief Chakthip Chaijinda warned of severe punishment for police officers who demand bribes from employers or migrant workers while enforcing the new executive decree on foreign labourers.
However workers have reported being extorted several times on their journeys out of the country.
A temporary receiving station for illegal migrant workers, set up in Poipet and manned by NGOs and local authorities, is providing advice about working legally in Thailand and the proper procedures for applying for passports and employment visas.
Workers are also being provided with assistance to enable them to return to their homes
At the station, many workers angrily alleged they had to pay bribes up to three times on their way to Cambodia.
Some claimed they had to pay several hundred bahts each to the police as transport charges, while others said they were extorted even higher by Thai officers.
The workers said they were not informed as to why they had to pay the fees and there were no explanations nor exceptions for any worker trying to get back through Poipet.
Phun Thea, 42, from Banteay Meanchey province, said she had been working on a construction site with her husband since they made the move to Thailand in early 2015 without passports.
“My husband and I brought our three children across the border illegally to seek employment in Thailand. We had been employed there as construction workers since 2015,” she said.
“Our employers urged us to return to Cambodia to apply for passports and employment visas because they feared being arrested or heavily punished by the authorities following the enactment of the decree.”
Ms Thea gave Thai police about $30 to be transported to the Cambodian border.
“If we refused to pay or objected to this blatant extortion by the Thai authorities, we would be kept in immigration police camps for many days before being sent to the border,” she said.
Another migrant Vuth Pheakdey, who worked in a restaurant in Bangkok’s Don Muang district, said he was required to pay $294 in fines excluding transportation fees after he was accused of working illegally in Thailand.
“I will apply for documents to obtain a passport and legal work permit before I go to work in Thailand again because I fear arrest or being fined again by Thai authorities,” he said.
Sin Namyong, an official in charge of receiving the migrants, said local authorities and NGOs are doing their best to help workers get home.
“After they arrive here we inform them of information related to passport applications and the legal working process in Thailand,” she said. Some workers headed straight to Phnom Penh to apply for passports and visas after arriving at the Poipet checkpoint.
Others were being supported by recruitment agencies working with their Thai employers.
Pich Vanna, a leather worker in Bangkok said: “I had been working there for five months, but our boss told us to go back to Cambodia to apply for a passport and visa. They will welcome us back afterwards.”
Labour Minister Ith Samheng said yesterday he will lead a delegation to Thailand to discuss the issue on Thursday.
Officials on both sides are working hard to resolve the problems faced by workers, he said.
Interior Minister Sar Kheng meanwhile ordered Banteay Meanchey provincial authorities to close all 43 unauthorised entry points along the Cambodia-Thailand border to prevent illegal immigration.
The Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok had called on illegal workers not to leave Thailand as officials attempt to negotiate a deal to allow migrants to stay in their jobs.
Cambodian ambassador to Thailand Long Visalo said the embassy and the Cambodian Ministry of Labour are working hard to find a solution with the Thai government.