Updated: 06/17/2014 17:33 | By Agence France-Presse

Fear at the border: Cambodian migrants flee Thailand

In a flight fuelled by rumours of killings and arrests, construction worker Chim Phon joined 180,000 fellow Cambodians in a mass exodus from Thailand and to an uncertain future back home.

Fear at the border: Cambodian migrants flee Thailand

Cambodian migrant workers who crossed the border carry their belongings after arriving in the city of Poipet on the Thai-Cambodian border, in the northeastern Cambodian province of Banteay Meanchey, on June 17, 2014 - by Tang Chhin Sothy

Panicked over a threatened crackdown under the military junta that took power last month, the migrant workers have quit their jobs and rushed to the border carrying children and meagre belongings.

"It is not safe for us. We are scared. I heard Cambodians were killed," said 45-year-old Phon who had laboured on a building site on the outskirts of the sprawling capital Bangkok.

"We will never go back again," he told AFP as he clutched some Thai baht waited with hundreds of others to change his savings into Cambodian riel.

Tens of thousands of Cambodians, carrying suitcases, bundles of clothes and even electric fans -- anything they could carry as they fled in haste -- have arrived in Poipet, the main border crossing in recent days.

Rumours that Cambodians had been killed during anti-immigration raids have spread like wildfire across Thailand, despite official denials.

The junta triggered the crisis last week with a warning that it viewed illegal migrants as a "threat" and that they faced arrest and deportation.

Shaken by the response and the potential impact on the economy, they have now insisted there is no "crackdown" and denied forcing Cambodian workers out of the country.

But such is the panic, among people whose country is no stranger to upheaval and disaster, that it appears nearly the entire Cambodian migrant worker community may have fled.

- 'We were scared' -

The International Organisation for Migration estimates there are around 180,000 undocumented Cambodian labourers in Thailand, the vast majority of whom work in construction and agriculture.

"We didn't feel safe. We were scared of being arrested. The situation is not good for us there," said Phon, adding that all 20 of the Cambodians he shared a dormitory with at the construction site had left.

"When we saw a lot of Cambodians were leaving we followed them," he said, hauling two backpacks stuffed with clothes and a bag of kitchenware. 

Looking older than his years, and with a worried expression at odds with his jaunty green floral shirt, he and his wife pondered their fate back in Cambodia, where he had been a rice farmer.

"My employer said it was up to us if we wanted to leave but he cannot guarantee our safety as we are illegal," he said, adding that he had little education and that finding work in Cambodia would be difficult.

In the 1970s, emaciated Cambodian refugees fleeing the genocidal Khmer Rouge regime poured across this same border crossing into refugee camps in Thailand.

Now, newly repatriated migrants sit glumly under tarpaulins waiting for transport to take them back to their native villages in interior provinces. 

Some Cambodians have become improvised currency brokers, winding through the crowds with bundles of Cambodian riel, helping desperate returnees to change their Thai baht.

Many migrants do not have much to come home to, and the loss of comparatively lucrative jobs in Thailand will hit their family finances hard.

- Little to return to -

According to the World Bank, about 20 percent of the Cambodian population lives below the poverty line, or less than $1.25 per person per day. 

Phon said he worked an eight-hour day at a construction site, earning 300 baht per day (some $9), a decent salary when compared to a minimum wage of just $100 a month in Cambodia's garment factories.

He said he spent 1,200 baht on bus tickets to get him out of Thailand and was carried the final distance by a Thai police car. Now, he will be heading back to his family in Kompong Thom, in central Cambodia.

Phon's wife Lach Thy said the couple had only left their native Cambodia for Thailand a few months ago, hoping to earn enough money to buy a motorbike, after seeing many people in their village make money by migrating. 

"But now we have only a little money, not enough for a motorbike," she said, laughing drily at their misfortune as they prepared for the drive back to their bamboo family house.

"My mother won't allow me to go to Thailand again."

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