By Maryann Bylander, assistant professor at Lewis and Clark College
Workers at the Migrant Resource Centre in Poipet count in “trucks”. Nine trucks yesterday. Fourteen trucks the day before. Today there will be seventeen trucks.
Until recently, only two or three trucks would pass through the centre each day. Now, they drive up two at a time. Each truck holds between 40 and 50 “deported” migrants, meaning that last Friday – the day I visited Poipet – more than 800 migrants were officially returned.
These are not typical numbers. There has been a surge in migrant returns over recent days, following the passage of a strict new migration law in Thailand. The ordinance imposes harsh consequences for both undocumented migrants and those who employ them. Migrants employed without proper documentation face a maximum jail sentence of five years, and/or a hefty fine.
Employers face fines of 400,000 to 800,000 baht ($11,800 to $23,600) per each illegally employed worker. Most Cambodians in Thailand are still working without full documentation, making them vulnerable to imprisonment and fines under the new law.
The news of the regulation has been spreading widely among migrants on social media. While not everyone has the details quite right, they know that penalties will severely increase. Thus while the returnees passing through Poipet this week will be officially counted as “deportees”, for many this term is a poor fit. Some say their employers asked them to return. Others decided to return on their own, out of fear.
It’s hard not to draw comparisons to the mass exodus of 2014, when more than 220,000 Cambodians returned from Thailand out of fear of a migrant crackdown. The Thai government appears to be drawing the same conclusions. On Sunday, they begun publicly backpedaling, concerned by the growing numbers of returns. There is now officially a 120-day reprieve before the ordinance will begin to be enforced.
According to the government, the goal of the new regulation is not to curb migration per se, but to enable workers to obtain the documents they will need to have full legal status. Cambodians, they say, should go home, obtain necessary documents, and return through legal channels.
Yet as Cambodians working in Thailand are well aware, migrating through legal channels is difficult, expensive and inflexible. For many the costs alone are prohibitive. Indeed, one of the precise reasons that so many Cambodians in Thailand are undocumented is because of the high barriers to legal migration.
Migrants who want to return to Thailand legally require a Cambodian passport, a visa, a working permit and a contract with their employer. Currently the only way to obtain these documents is through a list of certified recruitment companies, who organise visas and official work permits in coordination with the Thai government. All told, documentation typically costs more than $700. Moreover, bureaucratic hassles, corruption, poor information, and overly centralised government services make it difficult to obtain even for those who are willing to pay the costs
There are pressing needs for the Cambodian government to make legal recruitment both cheaper and more migrant-friendly. Cambodia, perhaps unwittingly, has become a labour exporting country. While 15 years ago a relatively small number of Cambodians worked abroad, today there are more than 1 million migrant workers abroad, the vast majority of them living and working in Thailand. Put differently, this suggests there is one migrant worker in Thailand for approximately every four households in Cambodia.
Economists and policymakers like to point to the billion plus dollars these migrants send home annually as evidence of their contribution to development. But this only begins to shed light on what migration means for rural households. In the context of falling commodity prices, increasing landlessness, environmental stress/shocks, and rising indebtedness, migration is often perceived as the only viable option for rural households to make ends meet, to improve their lives, and to repay rapidly growing household debts.
In Cambodia, it is the poorest households who are most likely to have family members in Thailand. More-over, households engaging in migration to Thailand are not scattered evenly across the country – they are heavily clustered, meaning that in some communities nearly every household relies on remittances from Thailand to make ends meet.
The mass returns of 2014 offered a brief view of what a disruption to this migration system could mean. Returnees faced mounting debts and joblessness, problems that could easily have created ripple effects across the Cambodian economy. Instead, the impacts of the 2014 exodus were relatively short-lived, as migrants quickly returned to Thailand and began earning and remitting.
Since that time, the Thai government has worked to grant temporary status to migrant workers, while routinely shifting policies and deadlines in ways that create insecurity. The state has threatened crackdowns on a number of occasions.
While we can read new ordinance as just the latest government attempt to posture, read in context it points to the Thai government’s growing interest in controlling and curbing irregular migration. These shifts are worth attending to. Observers note the structural demand for migrant labour in the Thai economy, using this to suggest migration patterns in the region will likely remain stable despite political manoeuvring and changing policies. While this may be true, efforts to criminalise migration tend to be destabilising at the individual and household level, even where they only marginally shift aggregate trends.
Broadly speaking, both migrants and government actors want the same thing: for migrants to have opportunities to work abroad safely and legally. Yet while migrants want legal status, they also have limited resources. They want, and often need, low-cost migration, and also value the opportunity to move freely, shift employers easily and migrate temporarily based on immediate needs and changing future plans. None of these are currently possible through legal channels.
There is also a need for more meaningful oversight into labour migration recruitment, and stronger mechanisms to support migrant workers in Thailand. While policymakers tend to see legal migration as inherently better than undocumented work, migrants note that legal status isn’t always protective.
While legal status gives migrants rights on paper, they may or may not be able to defend these rights in practice. Indeed past inquiries into legal recruitment channels, both within and outside the Cambodian context, raise questions about the degree to which legal status meaningfully protects workers.
Cambodia may have limited ability to shape Thailand’s policies on migrant labour. However the government can work to create lower cost, accessible, more dignified and more flexible legal recruitment practices. This would in turn create more stability for workers, and perhaps the system as a whole.