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Economic woes back home for migrants

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Returning migrant workers on the border in Banteay Meanchey province. Banteay Meanchey Administration

Economic woes back home for migrants

Since the outbreak of Covid-19 early last year, more than 120,000 out of 1.2 million Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand have returned home, with many facing difficulties to sustain themselves and their families.

To ease the burden, the Ministry of Planning has encouraged returning migrants to apply for IDPoor cards with their local authorities. So far, however, only a small portion have applied to join the programme despite widespread hardships.

Phorn Chantha is a 51-year-old farmer from Kors Kralor district’s Chhnal Mann commune in Battambang province. Before the outbreak, he had worked with family members as gardeners for a real estate company in Thailand’s Pathum Thani province for four years.

He earned over $400 per month in that time, working day and night – until the Covid-19 crisis began and he decided to return to Cambodia in August over fears of contracting the virus. Currently, he farms a rice field he bought with a loan of $2,000 before he moved to Thailand. Besides farming, he has been hired to harvest cassava for a daily wage of 30,000 riel ($7), while his wife and two children raise 60 chickens at home.

Chantha said he had once previously received a donation of 25kg of milled rice from the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) but does not receive any support from the government because the IDPoor card he obtained in 2008 has expired. When he sought to renew it, he was told that he did not qualify because he already lived in a decent house – which the authorities said constituted sufficient accommodations.

“The cards should be distributed to everyone so that people will not be jealous or discriminated against. Yes, some people have houses, and maybe they have taken out loans to build them. But once someone has a house, he won’t be given [an IDPoor] card. I’ve also heard that people who don’t have houses have been let to suffer in these conditions for a long time.

“I was told that I already have a house, so why should I try to get the card? When someone doesn’t have a house, or their house is dilapidated, they are told, ‘why don’t you build a house?’” Chantha said.

Chheang Ouk is a 37-year-old migrant worker from Chi Kraeng district’s Chi Kraeng commune in Siem Reap province. Ouk said she, her husband and a brother had spent more than $1,000 to get passports and arrange work in Thailand early last year. After three months working at a timber processing factory, she and her family were laid off due to the outbreak of the virus.

After several months of going unpaid, she needed money to be sent to her from Cambodia by her mother. Unable to continue living there, she returned home in August.

Currently, although her family has returned to their homeland, they don’t live together, working as they can in the fishing industry.

Ouk now transports boats, fish cages and other fishing tools in Stung Treng province. The work pays from 20,000 to 30,000 riel per day, and on a good day, workers can earn up to 70,000 riel a day.

Ouk also receives financial assistance from her IDPoor card amounting to 220,000 riel per month.

Her 60-year-old mother, Meas Sok, said she would no longer allow Ouk to work abroad.

“I told my daughter I would not allow her to return to Thailand because after they went there last time, the entire investment was lost. I am satisfied to keep her in the country and make a living here – we live from hand to mouth,” the 60-year-old said.

The International Organisation for Migration (IOM) and the UN Population Fund (UNFPA) Cambodia recently conducted a survey interviewing more than 1,000 migrant workers who had returned to Cambodia, and half of them said they had returned because of fears about Covid-19.

Another 28 per cent said the reason for their return was unemployment.

The survey found that migrants who have returned earn an average of $164 each month. Only 21 per cent said they had regular employment and another 13 per cent answered that they ran small businesses.

More than 61 per cent said they would migrate again when the border reopens, and 91 per cent of them preferred Thailand as their destination.

Chantha, for one, said he planned to go back to Thailand when the Covid-19 situation subsides. He is saving money to renew his passport since the old one expired. He said his former employer has often phoned him asking him to return to Thailand – even without a renewed passport. But he didn’t dare go while the virus is still spreading.

According to the IOM survey, although many have expressed concerns about income and work shortages, only about five per cent receive government subsidies through IDPoor cards.

CENTRAL executive director Moeun Tola said migrant workers returning from abroad, especially Thailand, should be incorporated into the IDPoor system because many of them had borrowed money in order to go abroad for work. Given the circumstances of the Covid-19 crisis, they have been impacted more severely than most, returning to Cambodia without money and still in debt.

“As long as the state includes them into the poverty assistance system for free healthcare checks and treatment, they will not worry so much about their livelihoods. When the state distributes a budget package or hands out cash, they should be prioritised.

“The state should also assist in reducing their debts. For example, when jobs are created in local communities, such as in agriculture, their economic situations can stabilise, reducing the chances that they might need to migrate again,” he said.

Tola expressed support for Prime Minister Hun Sen’s recommendation that returning migrants seek work in the agricultural sector. He noted that more could be done to help facilitate their transition.

Theng Panha Thon, director-general of planning at the planning ministry, said that after the recent community outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand, a meeting conducted by Ministry of Economy and Finance secretary of state Vongsey Vissoth discussed providing IDPoor cards to all returning migrants from Thailand, irrespective of their political affiliations.

“If they have problems or if they are sliding back into poverty, they can apply for IDPoor cards in their communes like other people. Commune authorities will examine their status to determine whether or not they qualify.

“If their hardships are real, they will be given the cards. We don’t automatically provide cards to all migrant workers [returning] from Thailand because some of them have returned to Cambodia with significant assets,” Panha Thon said.

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