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Cambodian migrant workers in exodus home from Thailand

PHNOM PENH, Cambodia -- Tens of thousands of Cambodians have fled neighboring Thailand to return home, fearing a crackdown on migrant workers under Thailand's new military government, a senior Cambodian official said Saturday. Activists said the workers had been forced out of the country, but Thailand denied the accusation.

More than 84,000 workers have returned this month through the border crossing at the western Cambodian town of Poipet, said Kor Samsarouet, the governor of Cambodia's Banteay Meanchey province. About 40,000 crossed on Friday alone, and 10,000 returned on Saturday morning, he said.

The U.N.-affiliated International Organization for Migration gave similar figures, tweeting Saturday morning that 60,000 migrants had crossed back so far, including 37,000 on Friday. “More than half of the migrants are women and children,” IOM said in an earlier statement. “Aside from transport, there is also a growing need for food, water, health care and shelter.”

The Cambodian government has sent scores of trucks to Poipet to take the workers home.

The trigger for the exodus seems to have been statements by Thailand's military government, which took power in a coup last month, that it would crack down on illegal immigrants and those employing them. Several were reportedly fired from jobs and sent home, and the belief spread that both legal and illegal workers were being ejected.

The numbers of those fleeing swelled as unsubstantiated rumors circulated that Thai authorities had shot dead or beaten several Cambodian workers. Thai authorities have denied the rumors and sought to quell concerns about a crackdown, adding that they have plans to systematize migrant labor.

Cambodians, working both legally and illegally, fill low-paying and undesirable jobs shunned by most Thais, as do migrants from Thailand's other poor neighbors, especially Myanmar.

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