Cambodian migrants return empty-handed from Thailand

PHUM LUONG, Cambodia - Fearing arrest by Thailand's new army rulers, Chea Sokla fled across the border to Cambodia. But, like many others, she returned to a hard-scrabble village with no home, no jobs and no idea of what lies ahead.

After seven years spent working illegally on building sites in neighbouring Thailand, she crossed the border on Wednesday along with her husband and seven-year-old daughter, returning to home soil with 220,000 fellow Cambodians.

That figure, by some estimates, could be the entire undocumented Cambodian population in Thailand. Rumours about the killings of undocumented migrant labourers under a threatened crackdown by Thailand's new junta propelled the family to flee the country carrying just a few bags of clothes.

In Thailand, Sokla, 35, and her husband Phan Chamnan, 29, were able to put aside nearly $250 each month as construction workers - allowing them to send money to relatives back home.

They saved a meagre US$15 (S$18.70) a month doing menial jobs in Cambodia and Sokla said the family's work prospects were bleak in her husband's home village Phum Luong in Banteay Meanchey, one of Cambodia's poorest provinces.

"We are empty-handed. We don't even own a rice field," Sokla told AFP. "We don't see any light for our future."

Experts say the sudden return of tens of thousands of Cambodian workers may put a huge strain on the poor country. The World Bank estimates that 20 per cent of the Cambodian population lives below the poverty line, or less than $1.25 per person per day.

Many will return to provinces "where they won't really have an income, they may not have somewhere to live... we don't know how long they will be prepared to stay there for", said Joe Lowry, spokesman for the International Organisation for Migration (IOM) in Bangkok.

Flight a mixed blessing

Like many migrant labourers who help prop up key Thai industries but lack work permits, Sokla and Chamnan lived precariously - moving from job to job and province to province to evade the authorities.

Chamnan said returning - albeit without a plan - also brought a measure of relief. "It was very difficult. We always had to watch out for the Thai police while we were working," the 29-year-old said.

"We were afraid they would arrest and jail or fine us... Sometimes, I had to hide in the forest," he recalled, adding that the family sometimes paid Thai police bribes of up to 500 baht ($15) to keep them at bay.

Chamnan and his wife traded their jobs in Cambodia's Siem Reap province, home to the famed Angkor temple complex, for construction work in and around Bangkok.

They were following the path of Chamnan's siblings, who also left to earn a better wage in Southeast Asia's second-largest economy. But they joined the deluge of workers heading to the border last week after the new Thai junta warned that foreigners working illegally faced arrest and deportation.

Chamnan says it was too risky to stay after receiving near-daily calls from his anxious parents and seeing dramatic television footage of the mass exodus. "We heard rumours about the Thai military killing Cambodians," Chamnan said.

"We did not feel safe." The family were driven by local authorities from Poipet on the Cambodian side of the border to the village - made up of mostly wooden houses either side of a dirt track.

As they drove, Sokla said she was in many ways relieved to be on home turf, despite the uncertainty of a return without jobs or even a home to call their own.

"We feel peace of mind now," she said. For the short-term the family can live with Chamnan's parents in their single room wooden house as they work out their next move.

"We will try to make a living in our motherland... We will not go back to Thailand," Sokla said. But there may be a ray of hope.

Thailand's junta, which seized power in a May 22 coup, has stressed the importance of migrant workers in recent days and said it would simplify the registration process for an official work permit. "No matter what has caused this, there may be a silver lining because people who are now back in Cambodia are in an ideal position if things can be regularised," Lowry of the IOM said.