180,000 Cambodian migrant workers estimated to have fled Thailand

About 150,000 to nearly 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers are estimated to have left Thailand over fears of a crackdown.

Story highlights

  • Organization: 180,000 Cambodian migrant workers leave Thailand
  • Thailand and Cambodian government meet to discuss issue
  • Thai army spokesman: Migrant workers can continue working as usual

(CNN)Thai officials reiterated that the government is not cracking down on Cambodian workers in the country, as tens of thousands pour out of the country.

Despite efforts to allay fears, about 180,000 Cambodians have fled Thailand since last week because of concerns over a possible crackdown on undocumented workers, according to estimates by International Organization for Migration, an intergovernmental organization on the issue.

About 10,000 Cambodian migrants continue to flee from Thailand everyday, said Joe Lowry, spokesman for the International Organization for Migration. Combined with those who may have departed in private transport and cars, the number of those who've left since last week could be closer to 200,000, he said.

Cambodian and Thai officials met Tuesday to discuss the issue, as thousands crammed into border towns, causing bottleneck congestion.

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"People are in cramped area, in crowds of 3,000 to 4,000," Lowry said. "It makes for an uneasy situation."

Chatter sparks fears

    Earlier this week, many Cambodian migrant workers departing from the Thai border town of Aranyaprathet, told CNN they had heard rumors of arrests and persecution -- an allegation that Thai authorities deny.

    "We don't have policies to arrest as has been widely reported," said Colonel Winthai Suwaree, a spokesman for the Thai army. "I don't want us to get panicked. Initially, authorities will extend flexibilities and want to reassure that migrant workers can continue working as usual."

    Winthai added that those who've left can return to their work.

    "But we would ask employers to make a list of their employees in case authorities want to examine if it's necessary," he said.

    The majority of the 2.2 million workers legally eligible to work in Thailand are from Myanmar with 1.7 million and Cambodia with 438,000, according to the IOM.

    Thailand has a very low unemployment rate of 0.9%, according to the National Statistical Official of Thailand. Many of the foreigners work low-paying jobs that Thais are unwilling to do, but they are often vulnerable to police harassment and exploitation, advocates say.

    The Thai government has encouraged undocumented workers in the country to "seek employment through proper channels," according to a statement. The junta plans to distribute leaflets in Khmer, Burmese and Laotian languages to explain their policies.

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    Post-coup panic

    Thailand has been under the control of the military since a coup in late May. Although tackling illegal migration has been one of the junta's priorities, unease over the issue and the sudden change in the government may have fueled concerns and speculation, contributing to panic among Cambodian workers.

    It remains unclear where talk of a clampdown originated.

    Cambodia and Thailand have set up a hotline to handle the return of undocumented workers.

    Prior to the exodus, the IOM had estimated about 150,000 to 180,000 undocumented Cambodian workers in Thailand, which had been a "conservative" number, said Lowry.

    "The numbers (of Cambodian workers leaving) could be slowing down because there's fewer people or because they started to stay. We don't really know," he said.

    In recent decades, relations between Cambodia and Thailand have been dogged by border issues, tensions over an area surrounding the ancient Preah Vihear temple, and the 2003 burning of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh by rioters.

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