THEY sell their cows and pigs, and borrow more money. They cross the border, paying
the middlemen who promise them jobs in Bangkok. They are convinced they will return
home richer. A few do, but the others end up in Suan Phlu detention center before
being packed off back to Cambodia, penniless and in debt.
"My family thought I was dead," says Koy Suon, who last year spent six
months in Thailand - 27 days working as a construction laborer and five months in
Suon, a farmer, is one of thousands of Cambodians who go to Thailand to try to earn
a relative fortune. Many, caught as illegal immigrants, pay a heavy price.
"Twenty-seven days after we started to work on the construction site, the police
arrested us," he recalls.
"They had no uniforms on, otherwise we could have fled. They arrived about 5pm
when we were having baths. They put us in handcuffs and pushed us. We stayed five
months in jail."
Suon, 39, had lost so much weight by the time he returned to his home of Chom Nom,
Battambang province, that his wife barely recognized him.
He had also lost all that he earned in his brief employment and now, back at home,
has to repay his neighbors who lent him money to go to Thailand.
He was unlucky but others - such as Ra, a fellow farmer from Chom Nom - are more
In three months of carting bags at a Bangkok warehouse, Ra earned $400 - far more
than he could in Cambodia. When his next rice crop is harvested, he says, he'll go
back to Thailand to work.
About 100,000 Cambodians are working illegally in Thailand, according to Thai authorities.
About 1,000 a month cross into Thailand, the Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok estimates.
They cross in groups - ten, 20, 30 or many more people - in the evening, helped by
middlemen on both sides of the border.
Thousands later get caught and sent back - 3,600 so far this year. The majority of
those came from Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces, which border Thailand.
During the Pol Pot regime and the later State of Cambodia, there was a similar situation
as Cambodians tried to reach refugee camps within Thailand.
"The crossing points the illegal workers use today are the same as the ones
used in the 1980s," says a Battambang social worker who spent time in the camps.
"The middlemen are the same too."
Most of the illegal crossings occur around the border town of Poipet, where seasonal
immigration - such as Khmers crossing over in the daytime to work in sugar cane fields
near Aranyaprathet and then back to their homes in Cambodia at night - has occurred
"Today, the immigration is a typical economic problem between rich and poor
countries," says the aid worker. "Thailand attracts everyone who wants
to win a bit more money."
While the Cambodian immigration office in Phnom Penh says most of the immigrants
remain around the border area - with only about five percent going to work in Thai
cities or ports - Suon and Ra tell a different story.
Suon tried his luck with Hom Hun, his son-in-law.
"The guide used to come very often to our village to offer to take me across
the border. He said over there, you are going to earn a lot of money."
"The hunger pushed me to go," he says. "I have four children and my
rice fields were flooded.
"I sold two pigs and two cows and borrowed 1,500 baht ($60) from my neighbors."
Suon and Hun left Chom Nom at 7am on a moto trailer which picked up other people
along the way.
"We arrived in Poipet around 6pm. There we paid the middleman. Both of us paid
him 4,000 baht ($160).
"We were a group of 17 people, plus the middleman. We started to walk along
the canal. Then we crossed. We reached Aranyaprathet at 11pm where the Thai middleman
was waiting for us. We hid in a cattle truck and drove all night on the small roads."
The next morning the group reached Bangkok. The middleman took them to a construction
site and negotiated with the company boss.
The following day all 17 Cambodians drove all day before reaching somewhere near
the sea, and slept the night on a beach. The next morning, a boat took them to an
island where there was a construction site.
Suon still doesn't know where he was in Thailand, or the name of the island, but
the group worked there for 27 days.
They signed a contract. The working hours were 7am-noon, and 1-5pm. They were given
free food and slept in small rooms, three people to each.
"The Thais said we should get 1,950 baht ($78) every two weeks but in fact they
only gave us 820 baht ($32) . They told us that the money had not arrived yet,"
Then the police came and arrested them, after a tip-off from Thai workers on the
island, he believes.
"We were sent in front of a judge. I understood we were condemned to one and
a half months in jail. Actually we spent five months there, without going out."
The jail was Suan Phlu detention center in Bangkok. The 17 men were initially put
into one small cell but, after three days, five were moved to another cell.
"During the five months, I never saw the sun's rays. We didn't have a mosquito
net, we didn't have a mat. When we got a fever, we didn't have any medicine.
"We tried to ask why we stayed more than the one and a half months we had been
sentenced to, but the guards wouldn't answer us," Suon says.
Visitors to the center confirm the conditions are poor. One regular visitor said
the inmates were packed in "like animals."
The Cambodian Embassy in Bangkok claims to have got all Cambodians out of the center,
and sent back home. The last convoy of Khmers sent home, earlier this month, included
"Today, I can say that no more Cambodians are being detained. But tomorrow some
will arrive again. New people arrive every day," said Heng Vuddhara, First Secretary
at the embassy, on June 6.
"We have to dissuade them from coming," he said. "Tell them not to
come. For the illegal workers, it is hell here. They have to pay about 3,000 baht
[to cross the border] and then they go to jail."
He noted the story of one man who entered Thailand three times and was sent back
The Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh agrees the problem is big, but wouldn't confirm any
widespread involvement of Thai firms.
"Thai companies need labor from neighboring countries, and some Thai companies
may try to exploit the situation," said one official.
"But we don't need all kinds of workers...The importation of workers has to
Some Cambodians, he said, just ended up begging on Bangkok streets.
The official disputed that illegal workers were put in jail, claiming they were just
charged with illegal immigration and returned to Cambodia.
In Chom Nom in Battambang - where about 10 families have got members who have tried
to work in Thailand - Ra is happy. His success in earning money in Bangkok makes
"If you are careful, you can avoid being sent to jail. I am lucky, I know a
bit of Thai and that way there is no problem," he says.
Ra prepared his crossing into Thailand well, and had known his middleman for some
He says he crossed at night at Bang Trakuon, about 30km north of Poipet, where refugees
used to cross to reach the camps in the 1980s.
"We were escorted by five soldiers and there where three middlemen, one Thai
and two Cambodians. Altogether, maybe there were 60 of us in total," said the
The group rested in some hills after walking for three days and two nights, before
cars were arranged to pick them up.
They were taken to Bangkok, where Ra was given a job carrying bags of fertilizer.
"One bag, 50 kilograms, 1 baht. Sometimes, in twelve hours, I could earn 600
baht," he says.
A nearby factory with Khmer workers got raided by police, he says, but his own factory
was safe: "You know, the boss paid the police."
Ra paid for his food, and slept in the factory to save money. He worked there for
three months, with 10 days off.
He earned 10,000 baht ($400). Each month, he would send 1,000 baht ($40) back to
his family in Cambodia via friends, who he would pay $4 for the service.
Back in Chom Nom, Ra is sure he will return to Thailand.
"Here, even if we work hard, we do not earn enough of a living for our children."
Suon, after his jail experience, is unlikely to return: "Pol Pot was like a
jail but we could go out to find food. In Bangkok, that was impossible."