Money talks, as they say, and it talks loudest to those who have none. The
illusory lure of an easy buck is calling to the rural poor, who are rallying to
Cambodia's urban centers in growing numbers, researchers and NGOs say.
The brave, the ambitious and the desperate are packing their dreams on
to motorbikes and into crowded minibuses and following money's gilded path to
Battambang, Siem Reap, and above all, Phnom Penh.
The trends that
migration expert Bruno Maltoni is seeing throughout Cambodia have convinced him
that Phnom Penh and the other cities are on the brink of a migration boom. And
it is unlikely that existing infrastructures and social programs can cope
adequately with the influx.
"There will be an increase of the slum areas,
and a huge increase of the informal economy. There will be a huge reservoir of a
very cheap workforce in the city," Maltoni told the Post.
"Phnom Penh is
a small city, so it can't afford to absorb too many migrants. Already there are
too many migrants in Phnom Penh."
One of the biggest push factors from
the countryside is the increase in landless rural families. A cruel cycle of
poverty, misfortune, and debt - especially healthcare debt - is costing families
their land and livelihood, said Maltoni, a Royal University of Phnom Penh
sociologist and adviser to the International Organization for Migration and the
In Maltoni's view, landless people naturally turn to the
cities, because that is where the money is to be made.
Yin Touch is
angry. Her eyes flash as she relates how she came to make her home in the skinny
shadow of a palm tree outside Phnom Penh's Wat Sarawan. Three racks of laundry
and an upturned metal crate mark the territory that Touch, 39, has shared with
her husband and three daughters for seven years. The family came from Prey Veng
province, the origin of about half of rural migrants to Phnom Penh, thanks to
years of poor harvests.
"I used to have a lot of land until it was stolen
from me," Touch said, her voice rising in indignation. Dressed all in black with
her hair swept over one shoulder, she cut an elegant figure, even though one of
her cheekbones was collapsed. It looked as if it had been smashed in long ago.
Most of the family's land was stolen during the Khmer Rouge regime, she
said. But the small portion that remained was still too expensive to maintain.
They had to hire a cow to plow the land to grow rice, but that meant borrowing
money to hire the cow. Their creditors ripped them off with exorbitant interest
that doubled the debt each month.
The family's downfall came because
they were forced to guarantee the land against the loan. When they failed to
cover the mounting debt, the creditors took the last patch of land.
Touch earns money by washing clothes, "coining" - a traditional medical practice
of scraping the skin with a coin - and begging.
What little she earns
she dedicates to her daughters' education.
"Nowadays I live like a
chicken,'' she said with disgust. Still, she said, she would rather be in Phnom
Penh than Prey Veng.
"If I go to Prey Veng I don't have land to live,''
she said. "It is better to live here.''
Phnom Penh is a migrant city. At
the last census about two thirds of its population were migrants, although it is
understood that many were former inhabitants who returned after the Khmer Rouge
emptied most of the city.
Without a recent exhaustive survey or census,
pinning down migration patterns is an inexact science.
At the 1998
census a third of Cambodians had migrated from one part of the country to
another at some point in their lives. About 17 percent of those who had ever
migrated had once lived in the countryside and now lived in a city. Most
migrants - about two thirds - had moved from one rural area to another, and that
is probably still the case. But in the five years prior to 1998, migration to
the cities surged, with about a third of migrants during that period coming from
a rural area to a city. Maltoni and his colleagues at the university put it down
to economic growth after the 1993 election.
They believe that migration
to the city must have leapt again since 1998. NGO workers told the Post that
they had noticed increases.
"In Cambodia, migration is quite new as a
phenomenon. Until 1997-1998 it was quite dangerous because of the civil war,"
This month his department released the first study to
exclusively examine rural to urban migration.
A small-scale survey
conducted for the study backs up the boom theory.
Of about 500 migrants
interviewed in Phnom Penh, 46 percent had arrived between 1999 and 2003, and 35
percent arrived between 1995 and 1999.
Maltoni likened Cambodia today to
Thailand in the 1970s, in that a first wave of intrepid internal migrants has
now become established in the urban centers.
The next stage would be the
development of social networks that make it easier for the less adventurous -
and more vulnerable - to follow their pioneering family members or friends to
the cities, Maltoni said. In other words, a massive increase of
But the second wave would also bring a host of social
"From the Darwinian point of view it is bad, because migration
is the survival of the fittest," Maltoni said.
"Phnom Penh is getting
more and more urban and there is more development. But people outside the cities
are living in the same style as 500 years ago."
Without computer skills,
without English or other languages, without even familiarity with mobile phones,
rural migrants can flounder in their quest for survival.
Samlanh's Safe Migration Project has been working to smooth the way for young
migrants for three years.
The project has a network of police, motodops,
taxi drivers and market traders who rescue hapless and painfully young migrants
from the streets of Phnom Penh every day.
Three and a half weeks ago
Vorleak (not her real name), 20, was one of them.
With 6,000 riel
collected by her friends Vorleak fled her struggling village in Pursat province
to escape a stepfather who tried to rape her and a mother with an alcohol
She decided to come to Phnom Penh because she had heard it was
easy to find work here. But when the minibus delivered her to Psar Thmey, she
had no idea what to do next. The wide-eyed girl passed two fruitless hours
asking passers-by to find her a job and growing increasingly
As night drew in, she took the advice of a stranger and
decided to try her luck along the bank of the Tonle Sap.
people and possibilities, the riverside and Wat Phnom are usually the first
places migrants without connections seek out when they arrive in the
But both locations pose serious dangers for young migrants - young
men are likely to fall in with gangs and drugs, and young women are likely to be
raped, especially on their first night in the city, which is when they are most
Naive rural migrants on the streets are targets for human
traffickers and con artists.
As Vorleak cried herself to sleep near the
riverside a woman approached her and tried to persuade her to join her brothel.
Fortunately, an old woman who had been watching from a nearby house
rescued Vorleak and introduced her to the Mith Samlanh project.
Vorleak is learning to sew, and staying in Mith Samlanh
She said Phnom Penh was nothing like she had imagined, and
if any of her friends wanted to follow her, "I would tell them to stay in the
village, because it is not easy to find a job here."
But Vorleak is
determined to stay. She said she could not face the shame of returning to a
village where everyone knew that she had to leave because her stepfather tried
to rape her.
Safe Migration Project technical assistant Tracey Sprott
said it was better to help migrants than try to stop them.
understand that people will want to migrate and that migration is happening. We
provide information to families and to youth at risk so that they can make an
But when migration workers have been able to find
employment or training opportunities for rural clients in their home provinces
the overwhelming majority chose to stay.
"The city is not really where
they want to be," Sprott said.
"We need to create opportunities in the
provinces to prevent families and individuals having to migrate."
Meanwhile, slack economic growth in the provinces continues to push
people to the cities. The daily wage for an unskilled worker in the city is two
to three times higher than in the country.
Many rural Khmers move to the
city for short periods, especially during the dry season, to pick up extra cash
in construction work, scavenging, begging or as motodops or "beer girls." The
popularity of temporary work in the cities demonstrates that most urban migrants
would rather be at home.
That's certainly how Mom, another of Mith
Samlanh's lost girls, sees it.
Mom (not her real name), 23, ran away from
her home in Kampong Chnnang province to help her parents pay off a $300 debt
they accrued when Mom's older brother crashed a borrowed motorbike.
Vorleak, Mom said she would advise her friends not to follow in her footsteps.
She often wished she had stayed at home, but she was also excited about
learning the beauty trade through a Mith Samlanh course.
Mom planned to
stick it out in the big city until she had enough experience to open her own
business - back where she belonged in Kampong Chhnang.
Back home she had
a network of friends and family who gave her a sense of belonging, she
But it was worth staying in Phnom Penh for now, Mom said, because
it was the one place where she had a shot at becoming independent.