Many Cambodian migrant workers continue to cross the border to seek work in Thailand, despite the dangers and risks of the illegal crossing. Some migrant workers cross over with their entire families, including spouses and children, believing the brokers’ promises to find them work in the neighbouring country in exchange for a fee of 700 to 1,000 Thai baht ($20-$30).
The migrants who attempt to cross face the possibility of arrest on either side of the border as both Cambodian and Thai guards have stepped up patrols since the Covid-19 outbreak.
Officials at the border in Banteay Meanchey province said that when migrants are detained and questioned, they have frequently claimed that they could not afford to obtain a passport or visa legally, with many saying they are in debt.
Chan Vanny, a farmer living in Battambang province’s Banan district, said she and her husband had been working illegally in Thailand since before the pandemic, but decided to return to Cambodia when the outbreak of Covid-19 in Thailand became severe.
Vanny said she and her husband did not want to go and work in Thailand illegally, but did not have any choice.
“Cassava cultivation wasn’t productive because our crops were turned rotten by flooding and we were in debt because we had borrowed money to buy fertiliser and seeds. So the only option left was going to Thailand to find work and earn some money to repay the debt,” she said.
She said that during her previous stay in Thailand, she worked at a plastic bag factory earning about 10,000 baht ($280) per month, but there were also a lot of living expenses there like accommodation and food that had to be paid.
“I decided to return and work in Cambodia and I urge other Cambodian migrants who wish to seek work in Thailand to please go there legally.
“We were illegal migrant workers, so it was very difficult and we had to live in the most secretive way possible, especially when Thai police carried out inspections. I worked in Thailand for three years and had very little savings afterwards. And when you cross back again, if you meet Thai police they will take all of your money anyway, so I decided to find work in Cambodia instead,” she said.
Another migrant worker in Banteay Meanchey province who returned from Thailand before the Khmer New Year in April told The Post on condition of anonymity that he did not have the required documents to cross the border legally, so the only way to get there was by illegally crossing.
“If we go back legally, they need a passport and other costly documents. But if I go back illegally, I just pay the guide [broker] 8,000 baht,” he said. “Illegal border crossing is not easy. There are a lot of problems to deal with like having to cross rivers and streams or climb up and down mountains. Sometimes it just rains the whole time. But what can I do? I had no choice but to take the risk.”
By the first week of June, nearly 60 migrant workers attempting to cross the border illegally to seek work in Thailand via one illegal crossing in Banteay Meanchey province had been stopped and advised to cease their attempts to do so given the dangers.
Those 60 are just the traffic heading through one illegal crossing in one province, but there are many such crossings in each border province, especially Battambang and Pursat, where workers frequently cross illegally to find work in Thailand.
Suong Sao, commander of the 815th Border Police Battalion in Banteay Meanchey province, said that in early June, border forces – in cooperation with the Chambak commune police and military forces based in Poipet town – had launched an operation which prevented 59 workers from crossing into Thailand illegally.
He said the operation took place in Malai district and 44 migrant workers were detained on June 4, while another 15 were detained on June 6.
“They were migrant workers hailing from various provinces including Banteay Meanchey, Siem Reap, Battambang, Kampot, Prey Veng, Oddar Meanchey, Kampong Speu and Tbong Khmum. They were allowed to return to their respective homes after we educated them and made them sign contracts stating that they would not attempt it again,” he said.
Roeum Bunrith, Kbal Tomnop border police chief in Banteay Meanchey province, said migrant workers were currently continuing to attempt to cross the border despite tightened security levels there.
“The authorities work day and night to prevent it from happening and to educate them to go through the legal border, because they face many dangers and risks if they cross the border illegally, especially if they’re trying to escape from patrols,” he said.
He added that based on what he had learned from previously questioning them, most migrant workers said they had no passport and did not have enough money to get a passport, so they decided to cross the border illegally.
“They do not have passports and they are already impoverished and in debt, so they take the risk of sneaking across the border despite all of our efforts to educate them not to make illegal crossings. They’re still going to try. We stop them and educate them to cross legally, but we don’t penalize them further,” he said.
Horm Sam Khan, governor of Battambang’s Sampov Loun district, said that in his district, the number of crossings by illegal migrant workers seemed to be declining compared to during the Covid-19 pandemic.
However, he said that migrant workers cross the border illegally into Thailand due to labour market conditions in Cambodia and because of their need to earn income to support their families and unless those factors improve they are unlikely to stop.
“Recently, in my area there have not been as many illegal migrant workers, but before when they were sneaking across the border and we asked them why, the reason was due to their livelihood conditions and the need to seek out work. They were forced to work in Thailand because they needed higher pay,” he said.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights, said that – based on his interviews with migrant workers – the majority of them have significant livelihood challenges and another major burden many face is debt.
“First, our labour market is still too small. Second, because those migrant workers are still in debt to microfinance institutions, the only option is then migration,” he said.
He added that although the local economy has recovered slightly, the labour market hasn’t grown much yet and some jobs do not meet people’s needs.
“For example, working at a construction site in Cambodia gets you 20,000 riel a day or more, but this kind of work does not have any job security, which means when they take leave or fall ill they are not paid, but in Thailand they have more of those assurances,” he said.
He added that relatively high daily living expenses in Cambodia do not balance with the incomes being earned here and that’s why people seek work abroad rather than in the Kingdom.
Minister of Labour and Vocational Training Ith Samheng said that the employment rate in Cambodia is currently at more than 96 per cent, and the Kingdom is actually suffering from a labour shortage in some industries.
“Now it is difficult for us to find workers to supply to enterprises such as garment and footwear factories or large farms, such as banana plantations or rubber plantations. Those businesses still face shortages of workers. And in the banking sector as well as the restaurant and service sectors there are also still shortages of labour, so there is a lot of demand,” he said
He added that while Cambodia may be suffering due to worker shortages, if people want to migrate to seek work abroad that is their right to do so.
“Labour migration is a right and also an opportunity that the government has provided to the people. Seeking work abroad is a choice people make. But we’ve informed them that there is no shortage of work in our country depending on what they want to do, but it’s their choice,” he said.
He added that the Ministry of Labour has established a technical and vocational training system that provides more opportunities for people and more young men and women are participating in the training so that they can increase their job skills.
“What we expect is that a young man or a citizen with skills is someone with hope that they can have a better future. Our nation’s technical human resources must increase in response to economic developments because this helps to attract foreign investment,” he said.