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Smuggling in spotlight

A Cambodian domestic worker leaves Phnom Penh International Airport in 2012 after flying home from Malaysia
A Cambodian domestic worker leaves Phnom Penh International Airport in 2012 after flying home from Malaysia, where she was abused by her employer. Pha Lina

Smuggling in spotlight

Rampant people smuggling across Cambodia and the rest of Asia has resulted in thousands of deaths, widespread human rights abuses and an uptick in organised crime activity, a new report published by the United Nations Office on Drugs and Crime (UNODC) has warned.

Migrant Smuggling in Asia 2015: Current Trends and Related Challenges reports on 28 countries and highlights the increased human and monetary costs of illegal migration.

Although people are paying more to be smuggled, the report estimates that illegal migration has resulted in the deaths of more than 40,000 people world wide since 2000, and the exploitation of countless others.

Southeast Asia, in particular, is singled out as a source, transit point and destination for illegal migrants around the continent. The report claims illegal people smuggling in the region is a more than $2 billion industry.

According to the report, Cambodia is a major source of illegal immigration to other countries in the region.

“The cross-border movement of people in Asia is expected to grow rapidly and at unprecedented levels with the expansion of infrastructure across the region, in part due to the Asian Highway Network and the opening of Southeast Asian borders in 2015 with the ASEAN Community,” Jeremy Douglas, regional representative of UNODC in Southeast Asia and the Pacific, said in a statement released today.

For the most part, illegal Cambodian migrants are male, from poor, rural communities and aged between 17 and 35 years old. They are primarily moving to Thailand, Malaysia and Vietnam due to their more advanced economies, and are using dangerous routes through tricky terrain under cover of darkness to reach their destinations.

Despite the amount of illegal entries dropping off immensely between 2008 and 2013 (from 116,000 to about 60,500), official data from Thailand suggests the country still draws droves of illegal Cambodian migrants. Due to Thailand’s relative prosperity and its demand for cheap labour, the report says an estimated 124,761 Cambodian nationals left for the neighbouring country “irregularly” in 2009. In 2013, the UNODC estimated that 55,000 Cambodian migrants were smuggled into Thailand each year.

Additionally, Malaysia is noted as a destination for Cambodian migrants for many of the same reasons, especially for the country’s Cham Muslim population.

“Cultural and religious ties between Cambodia’s Cham Muslim minority and Muslims in Malaysia are said to constitute an additional pull factor for migration to Malaysia,” the report says.

The report also focuses on the mechanisms that allow for the practice to flourish. Rising costs and inefficiency in the formal immigration sector have given way to faster and cheaper methods of reaching destinations for would-be migrants, and, as Douglas said, “the production and use of high-quality fraudulent documents are also more and more widespread”.

The UNODC notes, for example, that Cambodian migrants reportedly pay between $34 and $138 to be smuggled into Thailand. That’s compared to the roughly $700 needed to migrate to the country via legal channels.

To alleviate the ills associated with illegal migration, the report urges governments to protect the rights of migrants while strengthening laws to combat people smuggling. It also suggests governments bolster cross-border cooperation and make regular migration more affordable and accessible.

Chhan Sokunthea, the head of local rights group Adhoc’s women and children’s section, echoed this sentiment, but said that the Cambodian government’s capacity is still too limited to handle the issue.

“I don’t think the government is prepared to handle illegal migration to [neighbouring countries],” she said.

Furthermore, Sokunthea suggested that the government should strengthen already-existing agreements with countries like Thailand, while increasing its capacity to help migrants already abroad that are in need.

“Everything is already on paper, but the implementation is lacking. It’s a problem,” she said.

Moeun Tola, labour head at the Community Legal Education Center, meanwhile, expressed fear that low-skilled Cambodian workers will not be afforded proper protection once the ASEAN community comes into effect later this year.

“We are concerned about the integration. The free flow of the labour force means more people are going to move, and for Cambodia, I’m afraid people will just go and take low-wage jobs in other countries. But countries like Thailand, Malaysia and Singapore don’t respect migrant workers,” he said, noting that these countries have not ratified International Labour Organisation (ILO) convention 189, which guarantees domestic workers the same rights as other workers.

“The most important thing the Cambodian government needs to do is create low-skilled jobs within the country,” he said.

Correction: An earlier version of this article incorrectly stated that illegal migration has resulted in more than 40,000 deaths in Asia. The number actually refers to the estimated number deaths world wide. We apologise for the error.

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