BANGKOK (AFP) - Thailand's junta threatened on Wednesday to arrest and deport all illegal foreign workers, as border officials reported an exodus of Cambodian migrants following last month's military takeover.
Labourers from neighbouring Cambodia, Laos and Myanmar have played a key role in Thai industries such as seafood, agriculture and construction, but they often lack proper work permits.
From now on any illegal migrant workers found in Thailand "will be arrested and deported", Thai army spokesman Sirichan Ngathong said. "We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems," she said.
Since the May 22 coup, at least 10,000 Cambodian workers have crossed back, according to Mr Neth Serey, an official at the Cambodian consulate in the Thai border province of Sa Kaeo.
Activists said the migrants were transported in trucks and dumped at the border.
"They feel scared. Some were crying," said Mr Soum Chankea, a coordinator for Cambodian rights group ADHOC, who met with some of them.
Many of the migrants, including women and children, are effectively stranded at the frontier with no money to pay for their journey home, according to the International Organization for Migration (IOM).
There are usually 100 migrants coming through the main Aranyaprathet-Poipet border checkpoint each day, said the IOM acting chief of mission in Cambodia Leul Mekonnen. "But we are already seeing more than 1,000 a day and we do not know what the coming days hold."
Construction worker Chea Loeun, who returned from Thailand on Wednesday, said Cambodians feared being arrested by the Thai army.
"They said Cambodian migrants joined protests there," the 34-year-old told AFP by telephone from Poipet.
"Cambodia workers dare not stay in Thailand anymore."
Thailand is usually home to more than two million migrant workers, according to activists.
In the past the authorities turned a blind eye to the presence of illegal labourers because they were needed when the economy was booming.
Now, however, Thailand is on the verge of recession after the economy contracted 2.1 per cent quarter-on-quarter in the first three months of 2014.
Some workers from Myanmar have also returned home since the coup, said Mr Chalee Loysoong, president of the Thai Labour Solidarity Committee, which helps foreign labourers in the kingdom.
"The illegal ones are probably scared so they went back by themselves," he said.
After seizing power, the Thai junta banned public protests, summoned hundreds of critics for questioning and imposed a night-time curfew.
The army has floating the idea of creating special economic zones in border areas to better manage the movements of migrant workers, although so far details of the plan remain vague.
The coup followed years of political divisions between a military-backed royalist establishment and the family of fugitive former Thai prime minister Thaksin Shinawatra - a close ally of Cambodian Premier Hun Sen, who once called him an "eternal friend".