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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Voices from the border: Tales from migrants returning from Thailand put a crisis in focus

Voices from the border

Fearing punishment, and possible arrest, more than 8,000 migrants have left Thailand for Cambodia since late June. While the flow of returnees has abated, it is unclear what will happen when harsh new Thai laws go into effect at the start of next year. Recent returnees face a choice: to get documented and go back or to stay home.

Workers step out of a Thai truck packed with Cambodian migrants in Poipet.

Workers step out of a Thai truck packed with Cambodian migrants in Poipet. Sahiba Chawdhary

In a sweaty hall near the Thai border, rows of people sit, exhausted. “Kampong Cham! Prey Veng! Takeo!” a woman shouts into a microphone. For the almost 60 people in the hall returning from Thailand at the migrant Poipet Transit Centre, this is the last stop before going home.

“Banteay Meanchey!” the woman shouts through the microphone. There is a sudden commotion as a group of 14 people rush to the exit, their exhaustion replaced by excitement.

They collect their belongings from the pile of luggage at the front of the hall and then head to the buses that will bring them home.

Throughout the day, eight trucks carrying migrants from Thailand have arrived at the centre, part of an exodus sparked by a sudden change in immigration laws by the junta-led Thai government.

Over the past few weeks, thousands of undocumented Cambodians have returned – both voluntarily and involuntarily – out of fear of punishment by the Thai government. Under a new law, passed at the end of June, undocumented workers could be fined up to $3,000 and subject to five years of imprisonment. Their employers, meanwhile, could be fined $23,571 per undocumented worker.

One of the deportees is Bou Sami, 29, who arrived in Poipet barefoot and, unlike other migrants piling up their belongings, is without any possessions to his name.

Sami was arrested by Thai police while he was on a walk to buy a snack.

“They handcuffed me and put my hands behind my back,” he says. “Then they kicked me with their boots and my head hit on the concrete, injuring my forehead . . . I didn’t get any treatment.”

Bou Sami, who was detained by Thai police.
Bou Sami, who was detained by Thai police. Sahiba Chawdhary

He points to the large scar on his forehead – a souvenir of the arrest.

Sami says he had applied for a passport in Phnom Penh in June but his employer asked him to return to Thailand before it was ready and to pick it up later. He ended up in a windowless cell, unable to seek help from his employer, who had his work papers.

“I have no idea how many days I was detained, because it was always dark,” he says. “I don’t even have shoes with me. I have nothing.”

Sami’s story is telling of the hardships migrants face, though it is not necessarily the norm. Many of the returnees have come of their own volition, some on the instruction of their employers.

The exodus has slowed over the past week – after the Thai government suspended the enforcement of fines until the end of the year – but the stories of migrants from the Poipet Transit Centre draw a picture of the many converging vulnerabilities they face.

Source: National Police

Children on the move

In search of income to support themselves and their families, many of those crossing the border to work in Thailand are minors, a group at particular risk for exploitation, abuse and trafficking.

One such worker is Nov Pheakdey, 16, who climbs off a truck and is directed to a drop-in centre for children, run by the children’s rights NGO Damnok Tek. The teenager has been working in Bangkok as a construction worker for about a year.

He receives his salary in one lump sum each year, which means that he has to borrow money from his employer to buy anything.

“I came back last year after I got my one-year salary of 30,000 baht [about $880] paid, so I visited my mother and she asked me for all of my salary for her to build a new house,” he says.

Such an arrangement, according to Barry Jessen, senior project manager at Samaritan’s Purse, is not unusual and leaves migrants open to a host of problems – like “disease through poor living and nutrition”, trafficking and debt.

Pheakdey says he doesn’t have the funds to go back to Thailand now that he is back on home soil, so he plans to train as a mechanic in his hometown in Siem Reap province.

Long Sanrithy, deputy director of Damnok Tek, said a lack of education makes children easily exploited. “Children are more at risk [to be exploited] than adults, because they understand little,” he said.

Prak Nhes with her granddaughter.
Prak Nhes with her granddaughter. Sahiba Chawdhary

He estimates that minors made up 10 to 15 percent of the returning migrants.

Many of them left Cambodia with their family, like 17-year-old Chhuom Noy, who worked at a construction site for $147 a month. Her employer lent her $294 to get papers before she returns.

Waiting for her province to be called, her mother, Prak Nhes, 37, holds her 7-month-old grandchild in her arms. After 10 years of living in Thailand on and off, she is returning to Cambodia again.

“None of my three kids ever went to school,” Nhes says. Next to her is her 18-year-old daughter and 12-year-old son. “I can’t afford to pay for their study, and in Thailand I can’t send them to school as we’re undocumented.”

The debt and documentation burden

A lack of money is the main factor that drives migrants towards being undocumented – and keeps them there. Almost all of the migrants Post Weekend spoke with complained they were not able to afford passport fees.

Nhes says an almost $880 loan she took to migrate to Thailand with her family is looming over her head – making it impossible to pay everybody’s passport fees.

Researcher Maryann Bylander found similar results in interviews with returnees in 2014, whose findings will soon be published in a paper called Migration Disruption: Crisis and Continuity in the Cambodian Mass Returns.

“Most migrations [in Chanleas Dai commune near the border] are financed by loans, creating pressure for migrants to find work quickly upon arrival, and routinely resulting in overindebtedness when migrations fail,” she writes, adding that mass returns only exacerbate debt.

This seems to be reflected in Nhes’s family’s experience.“I can’t afford to make the documents legal,” Nhes says. For the past three years she has paid back the $100 yearly interest rate on her loans.

“We don’t get any jobs in Cambodia, we have to go back to work in Thailand.”

Nhes’s 18-year-old daughter Sreynith, who is the mother of the 7-month-old baby in Nhes’s arms, will stay in Cambodia because she can’t work while she cares for her child.

This means that the family will be separated: Sreynith will look after the baby and her 12-year-old brother, while her husband and her father will apply for passports and go back.

Her mother will also return but will do so undocumented. Her sister, Noy, is still uncertain whether she can afford the trip back to Thailand.

For Phai Nea, 37, migration has also been intertwined with debt. She has worked for five years in the Thai fishing industry. “I used to borrow money with a private lender before I went to Thailand: 10,000 baht [about $294]” she said. “I pay them a 10 percent interest rate. I spent the money to cover the expenses when I migrated to Thailand.”

But unlike Nhes, Nea is chipping away at her debt, and is just a few thousand Baht from being in the clear.

Nonetheless, she doesn’t have enough to cover passport fees.

“I can’t go back to work in Thailand any time soon because I don’t have the money to apply for the passport,” she says.

This is not an isolated story. Many people told Post Weekend they could not afford the passport fees and would therefore stay in Cambodia or go back to Thailand undocumented at their own risk. As research by Bylander has shown, many migrant workers stayed in Thailand during the 2014 crackdown because they could not afford to get back.

Another one of Nea’s daughters, 18-year-old daughter Phann Than, also worked in the fishing industry and is now facing the financial burden of getting documented.

“I heard that we have to spend 20,000 baht [$588] for each passport, not including transport,” she said. “It’s a lot of money, but as we don’t get any jobs in Cambodia, we have to go back to work in Thailand.”

Phan Than, 18, a Thai fishery worker.
Phan Than, 18, a Thai fishery worker. Sahiba Chawdhary

To try to prevent migrants from leaving again, the Labour Ministry’s National Employment Agency has set up a stand at the transit centre to connect workers with local jobs. Touch Sophat, a representative of NEA, said they approached migrants to provide them with opportunities in 77 companies in the country that were looking for low-skilled labourers.

“Our officers will then contact them. Most of them don’t want skills, they just want jobs,” he said.

He said that over the course of the previous two days alone, they had taken down the names of 593 migrants, but the actual impact remains unclear. But for some migrants, this offer does not apply.

Hoy Rim makes his way through the hall on a makeshift board with wheels. His disability has made him unable to walk since he was a child. “I don’t get any support or income [in Cambodia], so I went to Thailand,” he said. “I’m a beggar . . . and get about 300 to 400 baht [about $9 to $12] per day.”

The 44-year-old says he was arrested and deported that same day. “In 2014 I was also deported, and I went back again after a while. I can’t afford to make any legal documents. As a beggar, it’s impossible,” he says.

This time, he said, he would go back “once the crackdown in Thailand is quiet”.

Jessen says it was common among workers to migrate multiple times, with 63 percent of the people his organisation interviewed in July having migrated twice or more in the past five years.

The migrants Post Weekend spoke to paid between approximately $44 and $90 to migrate to Thailand without documents and to get a job there.

Sami, the man arrested by police, said he went to Thailand three or four times, paying brokers 3,000 baht (about $90) each time. “I used to look for jobs in my hometown, but no one accepts me; they said as I don’t have skills they are better off hiring their relatives and not me,” he said.

While many returnees say their employers lent them money to come back legally, they add that the amount was either not enough to cover the costs or that they were told by their employers that passport fees would be deducted from their monthly salaries.

A truckload of migrants arrive in Poipet on July 7, where they will be presented information on how to secure documentation to work legally before being taken to their home provinces.

A truckload of migrants arrive in Poipet on July 7, where they will be presented information on how to secure documentation to work legally before being taken to their home provinces. Sahiba Chawdhary

A recent announcement by the Labour Ministry clarified that the cost for a normal passport from the Ministry of Interior was $100, and $200 for an expedited one-day passport.

In reality, however, migrants often pay much more. Mean Sopheap, 19, said her employer at Golf Club King Malay had told her he already transferred $824 to an agency in Cambodia for her to get a passport. “He will deduct my salary [of $147 a month] for six months,” she says.

Another worker at the same golf course, Heap Sokhim, 32, says he paid about $677 to an agency in the capital.

Golf Club King Malay could not be reached for confirmation.

To get more migrant workers documented, Labour Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour said last week that the Labour Ministry would produce travel documents in Thailand equivalent to passports beginning the first week of August. The document, which along with other required paperwork would cost $113, would be valid for five years and would be issued at offices in Thailand.

Those who were completely undocumented, he said, would need to register with the Thai Department of Employment during a two-week window ending on August 7.

They would then go through a “verification process” with representatives of the Cambodian government.

Border police officer Sin Namyong, who calls out the names of provinces into the microphone, says most of the workers wouldn’t be able to apply for the travel book available in Thailand because it requires a family book, identity card and birth certificate.

“Most of them don’t have that with them in Thailand,” she says.

Sin Namyong calls out province names.

Sin Namyong calls out province names. Sahiba Chawdhary

A free ride?

Without these documents, most migrants would have no choice but to go back to Cambodia, and do so voluntarily.

“Some come by themselves, but many think it’s better to go with the police truck, because it’s cheaper and safer,” Namyong says. Because of that, she says it is hard to distinguish between people who are forcefully deported and those who voluntarily used the deportation system to go back home.

Many of the migrants drive to checkpoints on the Thai side and then give themselves up to police, who transport them to the Cambodian side of the border.

“We went by bus to Sa Kaeo province, where the police arrested us at the checkpoint,” Nea says.

But Nhes says she and her family had to pay almost $60 each to get to the Poipet border, while Sokhim, from the golf course, says they had to pay $3 for the transport on the police truck.

The Thai police deport convicted criminals, meanwhile, twice each week, according to Namyong.

Jessen, of Samaritan’s Purse, says the new laws had visible impacts on the percentage of people who returned voluntarily and those who were deported after being arrested. A survey from the first quarter of 2016 found just over half of returnees came back voluntarily, with the rest deported after arrest. Over a recent period from late June to early July, 94 percent of returnees were voluntary.

Two construction workers wait for their provinces to be called out.

Two construction workers wait for their provinces to be called out.Sahiba Chawdhary

Nonetheless, arrests and deportations have continued apace but are dwarfed by the exodus. “There are still a large number of people being deported,” he says.

Since Post Weekend’s visit to the migrant centre last weekend, the number of returnees has dropped back to normal. According to International Organisation for Migration spokesman Troy Dooley, 192 migrants passed through the transit centre on Monday, with 161 on Tuesday and 216 on Wednesday. “Now they’re completely normal,” he says. In total, 8,328 migrants have returned since the first spike on June 28.

Despite the seeming return to normalcy, it remains to be seen how many undocumented workers will get papers before the end of the year and what will happen to those who are still undocumented when the harsh punishments go into effect in 2018.

At the transit centre, the experience is the same for virtually all the migrants: a long wait for the name of their provinces to be called, interspersed with information about passport prices and application procedures.

Namyong has been shouting into the microphone all day, beginning at 8am. It’s now 9pm, and long since dark. “Tbong Khmum!” she yells, the last province of the day. The remaining migrants gather up their belongings as they climb onto the bus. Many of them are hoping to make the journey back as soon as they can.

After they have left, Namyong goes through her notebook with numbers written down painstakingly in the margins, separating men, women and children. After about five minutes, she has finished her math. Today’s count? 403 migrants.