More than 160,000 Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand stand to be deported if they have not registered by a December 14 deadline, potentially exposing them to abuses at the hands of employers and authorities, according to civil society.
Officials quoted by Thai state broadcaster MCOT said on Friday that only 56,776 Cambodians have successfully completed the nationality verification process, leaving another 165,654 Cambodians – plus more than one million migrants from other countries – open to arrest, deportation and, according to experts and rights groups, exploitation, extortion and debt slavery.
Though the Thai government has extended the nationality verification deadline twice before, most recently pushing it from June 14 to December 14, labour expert Andy Hall of the Institute for Population and Social Research at Mahidol University in Thailand said that migrant workers faced unexpected hurdles in applying.
“It’s not so difficult, it’s just corrupt,” said Hall, noting that costs for, among other things, bribes could run as high as $200 to $300. “It’s very expensive for them, and it’s a very bureaucratic and corrupt process . . . It’s not the workers’ fault, it’s the employers and the officials’ fault.”
Deportation will also leave migrants facing a difficult decision should they wish to return, Hall added. Returning to Thailand illegally would expose workers to exploitative bosses and authorities, but the high costs associated with returning legally could leave them open to debt bondage.
“It’s very dangerous. The workers, they’re caught between two hells,” he said.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said that such dangers are par for the course every time an immigration deadline rolls around.
“Crackdowns on migrants in Thailand invariably mean human rights abuses at the hands of the Thai authorities – physical beatings and torture, sexual harassment, and systematic extortion are all part of what will happen,” Robertson said.
“Cambodia has done a decent job in getting the workers registered and quite a poor job in helping protect their rights from abuses,” he added.
But, Moeun Tola, head of the labour program at the Community Legal Education Centre, said that employees were likely receiving little help from the Cambodian government.
“Those people who are not registered, we really suspect that those people were trying and could not register, and we suspect that the Cambodian Embassy was not providing enough to support to allow them to register,” said Tola, adding that such had been the case in the past.
According to Tola, the mass deportations by Thailand are simply symptoms of the lack of gainful employment in Cambodia. Without a better educational system, vocational training and job opportunities beyond “exploitation work”, said Tola, the problem of deportations will continue.
“If they’re deported then the government should have a plan of reintegration into society. If they’re just deported to the country without any reintegration plan, nothing changes, so they will try to immigrate again, maybe without documents,” said Tola, a prospect that often results in detention and extortion, even for legal migrants.
“If they don’t want to be deported, if they want to continue working in Thailand, then the government should have a dialogue with the Thai government to get them registered,” he added.
You Ay, the Cambodian ambassador to Thailand, said that while “officially” all undocumented Cambodian workers are subject to deportation, she had struck a deal with Thai authorities that would likely see many workers remain in the country.
“We negotiated already with the Ministry of Labour that if Cambodian workers want to continue to work in Thailand, and the employer agrees, then we will issue a passport” allowing them to stay, she said, adding that she had “worked very hard” for the deal.
Cambodian officials said that more such talks might be in the works but were unsure of the particulars of the situation.
Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour, said he was personally unfamiliar with the deportation, but said: “I think only Mr Seng Sakada, the director general of the Ministry of Labour, knows because he flew to Thailand last week, maybe, to talk about this issue.”
Sakada could not be reached for comment yesterday.
In its report, MCOT stated that Thai Employment Department Director General Pravit Khiengpol urged Sakada to make ready for an exodus of Cambodian migrants, with Sakada asking Thai authorities to quickly re-employ Cambodians, adding that Cambodian authorities would issue any necessary documents.