IT BEGAN AROUND 6 JUNE—two weeks after Thailand’s military chief, General Prayuth Chan-ocha, seized power. Cambodian migrant workers started fleeing the country en masse, driven by fears of a military-led crackdown on the irregular workforce. Already, the UN-affiliated International Organisation for Migration estimated, on any given day Thai authorities deported about 150 undocumented Cambodians to Poipet, a key checkpoint and transit town in Cambodia that straddles the Thai border. Now tens of thousands started spilling across, arriving in a stream of overcrowded cattle trucks, buses and Thai immigration vehicles.
I reached Poipet on 16 June. The normally quiet border was in pandemonium, with countless migrants, soldiers, police and relief officials teeming around. Some found a purpose handing out food and toiletries. Others waited, dazed, for news—any news—of what was going on.
Amid it all was Hon Channy. Soft-spoken and slight, the 21-year-old migrant worker huddled under a makeshift tent surrounded by garbage and a rising sludge. It had been raining for three days. She cradled her two-month-old daughter, Liza, seemingly unperturbed by the surrounding cacophony. “I was working illegally in a garment factory outside of Bangkok when my mother called me, urging me to come home,” she said through a translator. “She told me that the Thai army was conducting a massive crackdown on undocumented migrant workers. She heard rumours of workplaces being raided, Cambodians getting arrested and people getting shot.”