Over 260,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned from abroad, mostly from Thailand, since the beginning of the Covid-19 pandemic through the end of 2021, according to the National Committee for Counter Trafficking (NCCT).
Chou Bun Eng, Ministry of Interior secretary of state and permanent vice-chair of the NCCT, revealed the figure during the inauguration of the Kamrieng Migrant Reception Centre in Boeung Raing commune of Battambang province’s Kamrieng district on December 20.
She said the spread of Covid-19 in the region dealt severe blows to the global economy with massive job losses due to the almost complete shutdown of many industries.
She noted that the impacts were especially harsh for unskilled and low-income workers and the loss of their jobs had forced them to return home en masse.
“By the end of 2021, the number of workers who’ve returned from abroad has reached more than 260,000, most of them from Thailand,” she said.
She said Thailand – where more than one million Cambodian migrants are now working at any given time on average – announced the closure of its border in March, 2020, pushing more workers to return to Cambodia once they lost their jobs and due to fear of Covid-19.
The pandemic, she added, has taken a much greater toll on Thailand with over 21,000 deaths recorded compared to Cambodia’s 3,005. Thailand has also undergone more frequent and much longer, stricter periods of lockdown over these past two years.
Bun Eng mentioned that some of the Cambodian migrants who end up in the neighbouring country are cheated by brokers who smuggle them over the border with promises of jobs that do not exist while many other migrants cross the border illegally on their own.
All of this cross-border activity is the reason for the construction of the Kamrieng Migrant Reception Centre, she said.
“The centre is responsible for the safety of Cambodian workers who migrate in search of work and to earn a living but face various dangers and are then sent back by the [Thai] authorities in less than ideal conditions,” she said.
Bun Eng said that as of August 2021, the centre had recorded more than 700 workers returning through informal corridors along the border in Kamrieng district.
She said the centre will be the government’s representative tasked with promoting the rights and interests of migrant workers and reducing their vulnerability to human trafficking and exploitation during migration.
Battambang provincial governor Sok Lou said that over the course of 2021, a total of 69,122 workers have returned from Thailand and undergone quarantine measures in his territory, but currently only 499 of them remain at the centre.
He said that at present, Thailand still has its border closed and provincial officials have met with their Thai counterparts to discuss the prevention of illegal border crossings.
Lou said a total of 119 cases of human trafficking and sexual exploitation have been investigated so far this year with 185 people arrested on related charges.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said two factors have led Cambodian workers to return home: Expiring work permits and Covid-19.
He said the majority of Cambodian migrant workers are returning from Thailand, with a significant but smaller number also coming back from Malaysia.
“Most of the workers who came back did so due to the loss of their jobs in the countries where they worked – mostly in Thailand and then Malaysia – because businesses were shut down or their projects were temporarily halted. And many of those who returned did so out of fear of Covid-19,” he said.
Tola noted that as Cambodians, they could expect to receive free treatment for the disease here at home if they were infected, but abroad they have no such guarantees and little access to healthcare.