PHNOM PENH - Nearly 10,000 Cambodians have returned to jobs in Thailand after fleeing en masse last month, officials said Tuesday, as the two countries agreed to make it easier for migrants to obtain work permits.
The exodus of more than 250,000 labourers fearful of a crackdown on undocumented workers under Thailand's new junta has raised concerns about the impact on the kingdom's migrant-dependent economy.
At a meeting in Phnom Penh on Tuesday, Cambodian Foreign Minister Hor Namhong and visiting Thai foreign ministry permanent secretary Sihasak Phuangketkeow agreed to help "migrants to work legally" in Thailand.
"Cambodia has asked Thailand to issue visas for more than 10,000 migrants, most of whom have now returned to work there," said Hor Namhong.
Cambodian labourers help keep major Thai industries from seafood to construction afloat, but often lack official work permits.
A junta warning last month of arrest and deportation for those working illegally had prompted, by some estimates, the entire undocumented Cambodian population to flee Thailand.
Sihasak said it would now only take one day for Cambodian migrants to obtain a Thai visa following the establishment of worker registration centres along the Cambodian-Thai border.
In a parallel move to ease the process, Phnom Penh said last week that it would now cost only $49 for Cambodians to buy a passport, visa and other working documents to enter Thailand.
Border officials at the Cambodian town of Poipet, the main crossing between the two countries, said Tuesday that around 1,000 workers had crossed back into Thailand every day since the weekend.
Thailand has almost no unemployment and depends upon neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar to fill manual labour vacancies.
Despite insisting there was no crackdown against Cambodian migrants, the junta was unable to stem the flow of workers across the border, with Thai businesses reporting feeling the pinch of a shrinking workforce within days of their flight.
On Tuesday Sihasak also stressed the importance Thailand placed upon its foreign labourers.
"Thailand needs to restore order and has noted that migrants have brought huge benefits to the Thai nation and helped boost its economy," he told reporters.
Meanwhile Hor Namhong urged Thailand to release 14 Cambodians who were arrested last month for using illegal work documents.
Rumours of the shootings, abuse and arrests of migrants by Thai authorities were among the factors believed to have triggered the mass departures.
Some Cambodian officials claimed workers were rounded up from construction sites in Thailand and sent back to Cambodia in trucks.
But Thailand has strongly denied forcibly expelling migrants and has dismissed reports of killings as "groundless".
The coup in Thailand on May 22 followed years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and supporters of former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra.