PHNOM PENH — Cambodia’s prime minister said Thursday that at least 250,000 of his countrymen who were migrant workers in Thailand returned home this month under circumstances that initially violated their human rights.
Hun Sen accused Thai authorities of abusing their rights when the exodus began in early June, but said that after complaints from Cambodian authorities, the workers were treated in a more humane way.
The Cambodians returned home after the military took power in Thailand in late May and announced a crackdown on illegal immigrants and those employing them.
The belief spread that all migrant workers, legal and illegal, were at risk of arrest, and rumors circulated that some had been beaten or even shot by Thai soldiers. Some left after being dismissed by their Thai employers, who faced possible legal penalties for hiring them.
Thai authorities deny deporting any workers who were legally employed. About 400,000 Cambodians were believed to have been working in Thailand, most illegally.
Both countries are now seeking the migrants’ return to Thailand, which has a shortage of low-wage workers. Cambodia is one of Asia’s poorest countries, and cannot employ such a large number of workers.
Hun Sen said the influx of returnees hit Cambodia like a “flash flood,” with no advance warning given by Thailand, even though Thai authorities transported many of the Cambodians to the border.
After the crisis began, however, Thailand’s new leader, army commander General Prayuth Chan-ocha, sent him two letters asserting that Thailand would not use force against the workers and would respect their rights, he said.
Hun Sen said his government would expedite the process of allowing Cambodian workers to apply to legally work in Thailand by reducing the fee for obtaining a passport to US$4 to cover the cost of a photo, and process it in within 20 days. They previously cost about $125.
“We do not want to see our Cambodian workers working in Thailand as illegal workers,” he said.
Prayuth has highlighted the problem of unregistered foreign workers, saying they are taken advantage of by criminal gangs and cause social, health and security problems.