POIPET, Cambodia: The number of Cambodians fleeing Thailand over fears of a clampdown on illegal migrant workers rose to nearly 180,000 on Tuesday, as the two countries were expected to hold talks on the crisis in Bangkok.
The mass exodus of laborers—who help keep major Thai industries such as agriculture afloat—comes after a warning from Thailand’s new military regime that illegal foreign workers face arrest and deportation.
“The number of Cambodians returning from Thailand into Poipet [the main Thai-Cambodian border crossing]in just over a week reached 157,000 by this morning,” said Kor Sam Saroeut, governor of northwestern Banteay Meanchey province where the checkpoint is based.
Around 20,000 others have crossed the border at O’Smach, a checkpoint some 250 kilometers (155 miles) northeast from Poipet, according to the governor and a senior Cambodian police official.
At the crossing in Poipet—a bustling border town home to several large businesses, casinos and hotels—a few hundred Cambodian migrants arrived in Thai military trucks and police cars on Tuesday morning.
A batch of migrants who crossed the border overnight were waiting under a handful of tents propped up to provide the returnees with some shelter, as they waited for transport to travel on to their homes in interior provinces.
Thailand’s military regime has rejected any claims it has been forcing Cambodian workers out of the country after issuing a warning last week that it viewed illegal migrants as a “threat.”
The foreign affairs ministry has said authorities attach “great importance” to the role migrant workers play in contributing to Thailand’s economy.
The Cambodian Ambassador to Thailand Eat Sophea was due to meet the Thai foreign affairs ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow on Tuesday morning for talks, where they are expected to discuss the Cambodian worker crisis.
In the past, Thai authorities have turned a blind eye to illegal laborers because they were needed when the economy was booming.
But now Thailand is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 percent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2014.