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A migrant state of mind

A migrant state of mind


A lone Cambodian woman was found sitting outside Phnom Penh International Airport late on Tuesday night by patrolling police.

Smiling to herself, with a vacant expression, she was unable to explain where she came from or what she was doing, but a Malaysian stamp was found in her passport.


Duong Lorn, her younger brother, said Poung Savong, 30, had been beautiful and happy before she left to work as a maid in Malaysia, but the sight of her now only filled him with pity.

The little that police were able to cobble together about her told the latest of an all-too-familiar tale – Poung Savong had left two years ago to work as a maid in Malaysia, where she had been beaten and tortured by her employers until she had cracked.

Tackling trauma

Tens of thousands of Cambodians are repatriated from frequently exploitative migrant work every year, and while many hope to leave their ordeal behind them, mental health analysts are warning their troubles are far from over.

The Psychosocial Support For Victims of Human Trafficking and Labour Exploitation programme that Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation project coordinator Pich Panha heads has recorded an increase in patients in the past few months.

From January to March, the programme had reached out to 26 victims, more than double the 12 patients seen over the same period last year and almost half of last year’s total of 59.

The Ministry of Interior said 118,791 migrant workers had been repatriated from Thailand and Vietnam  in 2011, while a rash of abuses of Cambodian maids in Malaysia led to a temporary ban being imposed in October.

That ban has yet to be lifted.

Psychological plight

Deputy head of Adhoc’s women’s section Lim Mony said about 80 to 90 per cent of female migrant workers that the organisation had assisted developed mental problems.

Post-Traumatic Stress Disorder was common among female victims, which included symptoms like nightmares, withdrawal from people and hyper-arousal, said Pich Panha.

One patient – another maid – was the alleged victim of rape and attempted murder by her employers in Malaysia, who then trapped her in a large plastic bag and left her in a dustbin.

When interviewed afterward, the 21-year-old from Kampong Thom showed classic symptoms of a depressive disorder, said Pich Panha, including defensiveness and an inability to focus during her daily routine.

Distorted perception

Male victims often exhibit stress and anxiety, he said.

One fisherman who developed PTSD and depression had been forced to work 24 hours a day on a Thai fishing boat and was beaten by the boat’s captain, said Pich Panha.

He eventually escaped by jumping from the boat and swimming to a nearby island where he was repatriated by local authorities, he added.  

Trafficking and exploitation experiences affected victims’ self-perceptions as human beings, he said.

“In some cases, they are treated as animals, sometimes lower than animals. This kind of experience impacts the feelings, thoughts and spirit of the people. This damages their mental well-being,” he said.

Short on support

Lim Tith, national project coordinator at the United Nations Inter-Agency Project on Human Trafficking, which is supporting the TPO program, said the UN agency had responded to a need.

“There is a shortage of psychosocial support for victims outside of shelters, specifically male victims of trafficking,” he said.

“They often cannot fully recover from their traumatic experiences and reintegrate with their families and communities if they do not receive such psychosocial support,” he added.

Legal Support for Children and Women advocacy officer Natalie Drolet said about 60 per cent of the trafficking and labour exploitation cases handled by her organisation were referred to NGOs such as TPO for their psycho-social services.

“In about 20 per cent of our domestic worker cases, the victims have been so traumatised that they have stopped speaking altogether,” she said.  

In addition to emotional trauma, this also created complications in prosecuting victims’ cases in court, as they may not have been able or willing to talk about the abuses, she said.

Red tape

Lim Mony said victims were usually referred to TPO or commune hospitals, however, according to Drolet, provincial health facilities did not always have qualified staff to make proper assessments and issue certificates which were needed as evidence in court.

Chak Thida, director of the psychiatric department at the Khmer Soviet Friendship Hospital – the only hospital in Phnom Penh specialising in mental health services – said her psychiatric unit had received victims mostly after the National Program on Mental Health was set up in 2001 due to an increase in awareness of such services.

However, due to a lack of resources, there was no treatment specifically tailored to helping such victims, she said.

There were also often difficulties in completing the recommended three-month follow-up period with male victims, said Pich Panha.

“A lot of NGOs try to help them [male victims], but when they return to their homeland, I observe their needs could not be fulfilled.

“NGOs have administration, paperwork that takes a long time and they have to wait, so they say, ‘I am free now, what can I do? I have no job.’ If our intervention cannot be in time, they have to move again.”

To contact the reporter on this story: Cassandra Yeap at [email protected]
With assistance from Chreung Sophal


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