Tuesday, June 17, 2014

You Can Go Home Again

A Cambodian woman hands her child to a soldier while they get out of the truck that brought them back to Cambodia from Thailand

There's a mass migration going on in Aranyaprathet, a Thai town on the border with Cambodia. Hundreds of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers, many without immigration papers or work permits, are fleeing Thailand and going back to Cambodia. 

Poipet, the town on the Cambodian side of the border, is inundated with returning migrants. The traffic roundabout in "downtown" Poipet (a tiny town of about 60,000 people) has been turned into a welcome center. Buses and trucks full of Cambodian migrants arrive in town and volunteers direct them to military trucks that take them back to their home villages. 
Cambodian women in a Thai police truck look at the cage in the back of the truck as they arrive in Poipet

The exodus started last week, and its cause is a mystery. Cambodians, apparently fearing a crackdown by the junta that unseated the elected government, started going home. What started as a trickle became a flood and by Monday more than 120,000 Cambodians had fled Thailand. On Monday another 40,000 crossed the border back to Cambodia. By most estimates there about 200,000 Cambodian migrants in Thailand. If this continues, soon there will be no Cambodians left in Thailand. 
Migrants rest in the back of a Cambodian army truck while they wait to be taken back to their home village

I went to Aranyaprathet and Poipet Monday. 

Poipet was a beehive of activity. Hundreds of Cambodian military trucks were parked throughout downtown. NGOs Samaritan's Purse and World Vision setup a welcome center with health screenings, food and water. Local volunteers came to town to help in whatever way they could while the Cambodian military provided transportation. Buses and trucks, packed to overflowing, crossed the border, came into town and unloaded migrants who grabbed some food, were directed to waiting trucks and then, as the trucks filled, were on their way home. It was as smooth as a forced relocation could be. 

Back in Aranyaprathet, on the Thai side, migrants came in by bus and train. When the train from Bangkok arrived, it was packed, every seat taken, no space left in the aisles. When the train stopped in the Aranyaprathet station, people tossed their belongings out the window and then jumped out of the windows. Unarmed Thai soldiers and police surrounded the train and prevented the migrants from disappearing into town. 
A young woman perched in a window gets ready to jump out of the train

Police guided the migrants to the front of the station and told them to sit in the street. They closed the roads between the station and police station (about a kilometer) and marched the Cambodians to an events building across the street from the police station. 

Police provided a meal (and ice cream) at the events center than processed the migrants at the police station before putting them into trucks and taking them back to Cambodia. 
Migrants wait in front of the train station before walking down to the police station for their eventual repatriation to Cambodia

The real mystery in the exodus is why? Who started the rumors that authorities were going to crack down on migrants? And what do they have to gain? 

I talked to Cambodians in both Poipet and Aranyaprathet. None of them told me they had directly been threatened by Thai authorities. Their stories were consistent: they left because their friends, neighbors or family members had left. One said he left because his boss told him to leave, that the army might be coming. 

I talked to the police commander in Aranyaprathet and he told me his officers were not rounding up migrants and that the police operation was more focused on providing help than making arrests. 

The migrants weren't really under arrest but they certainly weren't free to go. Police and soldiers met the train. They stopped migrants who tried to leave the train station from doing so and took them all into town and provided a hot meal before putting them on trucks and sending them back to Cambodia. 

The use of trucks to haul people in this part of the world is not at all unusual. Construction companies haul their workers to and from job sites in the dump trucks they use to haul sand and gravel during the shift. The cheapest local buses are trucks some with seats, some without, so it's not fair to make a judgement about the use of trucks for hauling people around. 
A woman carries her son through the train station in Aranyaprathet

And the situation with migrant laborers is extremely complicated. Thailand has the most diverse economy and best infrastructure in the region. Migrant workers, most undocumented, come to Thailand from neighboring Myanmar, Cambodia and Laos. They work here and send money home. 

Working class Thais resent the foreign workers, who they say take jobs and bring crime and disease. Thai employers say they have no choice but to hire the foreign workers because Thais won't do the work. Employers argue that Thais want to work in air conditioned offices and malls in Bangkok and Chiang Mai. 

Discussions about undocumented workers in Thailand are just like the discussions we have in the US about undocumented workers. 

This exodus of workers has reached a critical phase. Soon there will not be many Cambodians left in Thailand. That means no one to work in the construction industry or farm fields; as maids or gardeners. Already a construction industry trade group is calling for the return of the workers. 

There are more photos of the exodus in my archive or available from ZUMA Press
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