Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Rural poor flock to cities

Rural poor flock to cities

Rural poor flock to cities

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

World Bank.

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,"

Maltoni said.

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.

NGO Mith

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.

Buzzing with

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

informed decision."

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.