Alleged violations of migrant workers’ rights must be investigated

Since the beginning of June, Cambodian migrant workers have been fleeing from Thailand back to Cambodia, through the border crossing at Poipet, due to fears of an alleged crackdown by the Thai military junta on undocumented migrant workers. Since the mass exodus began, an estimated 122,000 Cambodians have already returned to Cambodia.

Information and details remain unclear. Although the Thai junta announced earlier this week that arrests of illegal workers in the country and deportations would occur, they vehemently deny claims of violence and a mass crackdown against these workers, stating that the panicked flights are being propelled by unsubstantiated rumors and hearsay. Thailand’s Ministry of Foreign Affairs spokesman Sek Wannamethee claimed on Friday that the mass departures are in fact voluntary, and that many are returning to Cambodia to assist with rice farming at home. In addition, most returnees who were interviewed at the border have not actually witnessed violence or a forced eviction themselves.

There are however, several reasons for concerns. ADHOC claims that up to nine migrants have been killed in the crackdown, at least one was beaten, and others were shot at or witnessed killings. There are also reports of “violent raids on houses where illegal immigrants are suspected of residing and incidences of the tearing up of documentation entitling Cambodians to work legally in the country”. In addition, six migrant workers and their driver died in Thailand on Saturday, June 14, after a broker-hired truck overturned while transporting these workers to the border.

On the Cambodian side, there are also some concerns about the treatment of the repatriated workers. While Prime Minister Hun Sen has allocated at least 300 military trucks to provide transport from Poipet to the workers’ home provinces, these are not enough for the thousands of returnees flooding the border daily, leaving many to languish in Poipet. As well, some local residents are already taking advantage of the disoriented and destitute returnees, with reports of at least two men arrested for illegally charging 4,000 riel (roughly US$1) per person for the transport service. Furthermore, there is inadequate shelter, food, and clean water for the new arrivals, many of whom cannot afford to go back home.

In light of these disturbing reports regarding potential human rights abuses on both sides of the border, the Thai and Cambodian governments must take action. The Thai authorities should ensure that any deportations are carried out humanely, following the guidelines set out in international law with respect to individuals’ human rights. Any allegations of killings, violence, arbitrary detention, or abuse of migrant workers and of corruption must be investigated thoroughly and expediently. If these claims are substantiated, the Thai authorities must ensure that they cease immediately and that those responsible are punished appropriately.

The Cambodian authorities must also do their part to ensure that the rights of those being repatriated are respected. Necessities (including food, water, shelter, and transport) must be provided to returnees, and claims of extortion or abuse being carried out by Poipet residents and authorities must also be thoroughly investigated. As it is likely that those recently repatriated will be unable to return to work in Thailand, appropriate job creation and job training programs must be implemented in order to provide them with the skills necessary to join the Cambodian labor force.

Christine Pickering, CCHR International Intern, contributed to this blog post.

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