Dry, parched ground – evidence of severe dry season drought – stretches for miles in Siem Reap’s Srei Snam district. In a couple of months, the rains will flood these fields. Both conditions make it equally impossible to produce a good harvest.
Srei Snam was a former Khmer Rouge stronghold until the late 1990s, and development and employment remain scarce, district governor Mak Samphea says.
The district borders both Oddar Meanchey and Banteay Meanchey provinces.
For the residents of Srei Snam, those two provinces represent a gateway to a better life across the border in Thailand.
Every year, 25 to 30 per cent of the population – more than 3,000 people in all – migrate to Thailand for a number of reasons, Mak Samphea says.
“One reason is the poverty. Another, because the crop has no good result. [And] this district is very close to the Thai border.
“They have no jobs . . . The poverty makes the people try to go everywhere to seek a job,” he says.
The district is bleeding workers, most of them youths, even as Prime Minister Hun Sen has made repeated calls for Cambodians to stay in the country, pointing to shortages in the construction and agriculture industry.
Nok Lang, the district’s Smach village chief, says about half the families in his village lose at least two members each year to work illegally in Thailand.
Usually, these are the father and oldest son, but newly married couples often go together as they have no other income, for jobs that include construction, rubbish collection and selling fruit.
“They’ve got the information about Prime Minister Hun Sen appealing for Cambodian people to work in the country, but they cannot find work in the country with higher wages than in Thailand, even though they face dangerous risks,” Nok Lang says.
The living standards of those who worked in Thailand were also clearly better than those of families that did not, he adds, holding up Le Meth, a 29-year-old construction worker in Thailand as an example.
“Before [Le Meth went to Thailand] his family’s living standard was difficult and they lived in a small house, but after he worked and earned much from his job in Thailand, he had the ability to build a new house for his family,” says Nok Lang.
According to International Organization for Migration program manager Bruno Maltoni, such competing pulls for labour are to be expected.
“It is quite common for a country with a developing economy to need some time to balance international market demand for low-skilled workers with national labour market needs,” he says, pointing to a similar situation in Vietnam.
There is a need to continue reaching out to illegal migrant workers effectively, stressing the “disadvantages and risks of irregular migration compared to a safe job at home in Cambodia, even if with a lower salary,” he adds.
In the meantime, youths remain the largest group attracted overseas.
According to a survey conducted by NGO PLAN last year among youths of the two Srei Snam district communes with the highest migration rate, 77 per cent of respondents said they would migrate to work in a neighbouring country even though they knew the dangers.
The age group with the most migration activity was 15 to 24-year-olds, and most of them were the primary labourers working for families that depended heavily on rice cultivation for income.
Irrigation and development projects by the government and NGOs like PLAN and French development organisation CEDAC are helping to stem the flow overseas, the district governor says.
However, he adds that this is not a trend he expects to be reversed anytime soon.
“I think we can get good results…in a long time, because some of the young people want to continue to migrate like their brothers or sisters,” he says.