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Lessons from returning women migrant workers

A Cambodian migrant worker waits with her belongings at the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey
A Cambodian migrant worker waits with her belongings at the border town of Poipet in Banteay Meanchey after crossing from Thailand earlier this year. Vireak Mai

Lessons from returning women migrant workers

In June, more than 250,000 Cambodian migrant workers returned from Thailand over the border at Poipet, responding to the Thai authorities’ crackdown on illegal migrant workers. It is estimated that around 40 per cent of the returnees were women. The mass return of these largely undocumented migrants provided a unique snapshot of the irregular migration of Cambodian women and an insight into the choices being made by these women every day.

While the stories of those returning affirmed much of what was already known, or assumed, about migrant workers, some very clear lessons still came through. Namely, that people continue to choose illegal/informal migration and that informal networks remain the primary method for people wanting to obtain information on migration.

One of the women crossing back into Cambodia was Chandy (not her real name), a 26-year-old divorced mother of two, her eldest aged 4 years and her youngest aged 4 months. In May this year, Chandy took her children across to Thailand to find work. She was told by a broker that she could earn more money working in Thailand – and that her children would be looked after. Chandy paid $50 to the broker, who organised transport and employment for her. Neither Chandy nor her two children had passports or any legal documents that permitted their stay in Thailand. Chandy worked on a construction site. While she worked, her children were kept in a locked space near the site.

After a month of working, Chandy started hearing rumours that illegal migrants were being arrested and killed by Thai police. Nervous for her safety and the safety of her children, she paid $10 for transportation back to Cambodia. Before she left Thailand, she collected her pay from her employer and all of her belongings. On returning to Cambodia, Chandy expressed her desire to migrate back to Thailand to seek similar work.

Chandy’s story was positive – she received her wages, retained her belongings and returned to Cambodia unharmed. But in crossing into Thailand as an irregular migrant, there were no guarantees of her safety or protection. Indeed, many of Chandy’s fellow returnees had much darker stories to tell.

Some women reported being jailed for 48 days, unable to get their wages or their belongings, dispossessed and separated from their families. Others explained how their illegal status meant that their workplace became a jail, afraid that if they ventured into public spaces they would be arrested and imprisoned. Often working illegally on construction sites, these women were also at risk from the dangers that work in Thailand’s booming construction industry can bring.

Whatever shape it takes, illegal migration increases risk, with undocumented migrant women vulnerable to abuse, exploitation and trafficking, and their children going without access to health care or education.

The mass return through Poipet was a reminder of the sheer numbers of Cambodian migrant workers, including women with children, who continue to assume these risks in order to improve their economic circumstances.

In addressing undocumented migration, it is important to recognise that migration is not a new phenomenon, not unique to Cambodia and not going to stop. Moreover, the choices of migrants are more likely to be guided by the laws of economics than the laws of the state.

As such, to reduce undocumented and illegal migration, it is important that states understand, accept and work with these overriding factors. It is more realistic and sustainable to develop systems that formalise the existing flow of migration rather than to try to stop it, or to change its nature.

In responding to the mass return, the royal government of Cambodia announced new, cheaper and quicker passport processes. If implemented effectively, these may complement the continued efforts of the Thai authorities to register and formalise those undocumented Cambodian workers already in Thailand. These initiatives are to be encouraged – and the focus on making migration affordable, quick and safe must continue. However, migrant voices must be included in this process to ensure that new initiatives respond to the needs of people like Chandy.

In this regard, UN Women supports the royal government of Cambodia to strengthen policy through participatory processes to increase the protection of women migrant workers’ rights. In doing so, UN Women is also supporting the implementation of the commitments made by Cambodia to the Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women, General Recommendation 26, which specifically recommends that gender-sensitive policies for safe migration be developed with the active involvement of women migrant workers. Cambodia has accepted a commitment to protect women migrant workers. What the mass return at Poipet showed, however, is that there is much work yet to be done.

Enquiries about this editorial can be sent to Jenna Holliday at [email protected], 097 414 2647, or to Veronika Stepkova, communications officer for UN Women, at [email protected], 095 293 596.

Jenna Holliday is a women’s economic empowerment specialist for UN Women’s Cambodia country office.

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