A long and difficult trip awaits Cambodians seeking a better future across the border in Thailand, where illegal immigrants have become routine targets of abuse by border authorities and police.
A group of Cambodian migrants take a boat to one of the secret paths to Thailand in Koh Kong province.
PUTHY has been drugged, forced to work for days without sleep and beaten by police, but no matter how many times he's deported back to Cambodia, he returns to Thailand.
"I need money to support my family. Everybody in my family needs to eat," he said, explaining that he would illegally cross the border to Thailand again in just a few days.
Hundreds of Cambodians illegally cross the border into Thailand every day, forfeiting their rights and putting their lives in danger for a chance to work.
And with the global financial crisis and the turbulence of Thai politics, the situation may get worse for illegal migrants to Thailand.
Though precise numbers are not available, there are certainly tens of thousands of Cambodians working illegally in Thailand.
Mom Sokchar, a project officer at Legal Support for Children and Women (LSCW), estimates that there are about 200,000 illegal Cambodian migrants working in Thailand, while Oum Mean, a secretary of state at the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training, said there are only about 60,000 illegal Cambodian migrants in Thailand. Even this small figure dwarfs the 2,116 Cambodians legally working in Thailand through recruitment agencies, according to the International Organisation for Migration.
Currently, Thailand is vigourously defending its treatment of illegal migrants after rights groups accused the Thai military of detaining and beating up to 1,200 members of the Rohingya minority from Myanmar late last year, before towing them out to sea with little food and water in boats without engines. Hundreds are still missing and presumed dead.
Amid the crisis, Thai Prime Minister Abhisit Vejjajiva told reporters that Thailand would crack down on illegal immigration, while the Ministry of Foreign Affairs "categorically denied" allegations of mistreatment.
In a January 23 press conference, Virasakdi Futrakul, the Thai permanent secretary for foreign affairs, said that Thailand planned to work together with five other concerned countries on the issue of illegal migration.
But Cambodia was not one of the five countries.
Dangers to the east ignored
While international media remain focused on illegal immigration in the Andaman Sea to the west of Thailand, the significant dangers that migrants face crossing the Thai-Cambodian border continue to go largely unnoticed.
Manolo Abella, the chief technical adviser at the International Labor Organisation's Asian Regional Program on Governance of Labour Migration, worries that the worsening economic crisis will only increase the risks.
"The treatment of migrants, especially of the illegal, will no doubt deteriorate in terms of wages and job security," he says.
"The Thai government has already announced that the registration [legal recognition] of migrants planned for 2009 will no longer take place.
The government is afraid it will send the wrong signal that foreigners are being preferred to Thais in a period of crisis," he added.
The result of Thailand's decision not to legally recognise immigrants who enter the country illegally will keep Cambodian migrants vulnerable to exploitation and only encourage employers to hire them over Thai nationals, Abella says.
In March 2007, a Cambodian migrant illegally crossing into Thailand talked to members of the German media and two or three days
afterwards was found dead, floating in the Koh Kang harbour, said Seng Kao, a member of LSCW's mobile team and a former illegal migrant himself. The reason behind his slaying is unknown, but many suspect he was killed for talking to the media.
Seng Kao said that the Thai border patrol pay Cambodian motodops to gather information for them. The bribes that both Thai and Cambodian authorities allegedly accept make illegal migrants a lucrative source of income, one they do not want to lose.
From Koh Kang, there are two main ways to get into Thailand - by sea or over land - and both cost between 200 and 300 baht (US$5.70 to $8.50) without a guide, according to Puthy and other former migrants.
Either way one goes, it is a dangerous trip. By boat, illegal immigrants risk being attacked by sea bandits. One Cambodian fisherman who unlawfully trawls in Thai waters says his boat had been raided "only" twice this year, losing everything in his ship to small-time pirates.
Seng Kao said that for boat captains with illegal immigrants, the Thai military was even more dangerous.
"If you take a boat from Cambodia, the Thai soldiers might confiscate the boat, arrest the people and throw them all in jail," he says.
The land route is dotted with land mines, meaning those making the transit by foot must stick closely to narrow paths. According to both Thai and Cambodian border police, a recent fire caused about 40 land mines to detonate, a reminder of the thousands of unexploded ordnance still buried in the area's forests.
But like those who travel by sea, the greatest threat is often waiting on the other side.
"Sometimes when I walk across the border, the Thai police beat me," Puthy says.
If migrants are caught, the Thai police will sometimes take all their possessions and money, believing that these Cambodians have no legal recourse, Mom Sokchar says.
Border still heavily guarded
Em Picheyrattanak, a legal assistant at LSCW, said it has become much more difficult to cross into Thailand since last year's dispute over Preah Vihear temple, which increased the number of troops along the border.
"Now we have more soldiers on the border. It makes it more difficult for migrants to walk across," he said.
Typically, Cambodians unfamiliar with the land route to Thailand will pay a broker to help them cross the border, but a small number of these will dupe unknowing migrants into forced labour in often horrific conditions, said Manfred Hornung of the rights group Licadho.
Brokers sometimes tell migrants they are being taken to construction jobs but, instead, migrants find themselves forced onto Thai fishing vessels for months or years at a time for little or no pay, Hornung said.
Though new migrants are particularly vulnerable, even experienced migrants fall victim to unscrupulous brokers and boat owners.
"Some of the boats didn't pay me last fishing season," Puthy said, having gotten used to being swindled by Thai boat owners, adding that he is certain that he has been drugged once in order to stay awake - a common trick of vigilant captains.
But despite these dangers, Cambodians will continue to stream across the border until their government can provide enough jobs for its own citizens, Sok Heng, the deputy chief of Cambodia-Thai relations, says.
"I don't have much money, and I need to support my family. In Thailand, there are many jobs," Davy, a Cambodian woman, said, adding that her income from Thailand supports seven people in Cambodia.
Thailand's Ministry of Foreign Affairs told the Post that Thailand maintained a "lenient" policy towards migrant workers from Myanmar, Laos and Cambodia, and that labour protection and social security measures were being extended to cover illegal migrants, but did not elaborate on what these measures would be. The ministry has pointed out that in 2007 the Thai government prosecuted 3,853 employers involved in the trafficking or employment of illegal workers.
Thailand has repeatedly assured media and aid organisations that its policy is to treat illegal migrants humanely, but, if this is the case, it appears the government has little control over how border police deal with them.
Cambodian immigrants want to work in a safe environment and support their families, but, according to Puthy and Davy, they cannot always afford the proper work permits, which can cost 200 baht per week - a great deal if one makes, like Davy, only 2,000 baht a month.
"Even if I have a permit, Thai police would take it and rip it up," Puthy said. "I would like to go to Thailand legally and have my rights respected."
Neav Nath, who left for thailand in 1993, reflects on life as a migrant worker
TRAT, Thailand -More than 15 years after he left his home to work in Thailand's Trat province, Neav Nath, a 32-year-old migrant worker from Prey Veng province, has had enough."I really want to go back home, but I can't because I wouldn't have money and I wouldn't have a job," he told the Post last month during an interview conducted in the room he shares with five other migrant workers. "I really don't want to work here because I don't have any rights, but I must work here. I don't have a choice." Jobless and with no prospects, he left for Thailand in 1993 with neighbours who had also decided to make the trip. He gave a middleman 200,000 riel (US$48), but the middleman only took him as far as Sihanoukville. He paid 500 baht ($14) to get from Sihanoukville to Sre Ambel district and then to travel, via boat, to Trat's Klong Saon district. He spends his days cleaning, cutting and canning fish, working from midnight to 9am. He rarely leaves his house - which contains a total of 18 different families in five rooms - in Pe village, Klong Yai district, during his free time, fearful that officials will arrest him, discover he lacks proper documentation and send him back to Cambodia. The job pays 4,500 Thai baht each month, 1,500 of which goes towards room and board. He must also give 300 baht to his boss, who in turn gives the money to the police in exchange for a promise that the workers will not be deported. The remaining money mostly goes towards food and other expenses such as medical care. About five years ago, he said, he came down with malaria. After paying 2,000 baht for treatment, he recovered and was taken to a police station, where he was required to pay a bribe of an additional 2,000 baht. In his 15 years as a migrant worker, Neav Nath said he has been able to remit money to Cambodia only four times, meaning his family has received only 15,000 baht from him. This is more than some of his colleagues, he said, some of whom have not been able to remit anything. What is more, he said, he has been able to visit his home only four or five times over the years.
The trip typically costs 3,000 baht, a figure inflated by bribes that must be paid to both Thai and Cambodian border police. On these trips, he also runs the risk that the police will not be satisfied with a mere bribe: He recalled one trip during which both Thai and Cambodian police, at different stages in the journey, robbed him after stripping him naked. Despite this experience, he plans to visit his home province later this year. Assuming he ends up making the trip successfully, it will be the first time he has seen his home in five years.