Tuesday, 21 March 2017

Risky migration: Choices of Cambodians looking for opportunities in Thailand

By Robert Nurick,

Before I migrated, I worked in the rice field and did housework, our family rice production was insufficient to feed the family in some years. We experienced rice shortages for a couple months each year. I raised pigs but had to borrow money from the private moneylender to buy pig food. The pigs died so I was unable to repay the loan and the interest. I was sinking into deeper and deeper debt so my husband and I migrated to earn money to repay the loan.

I decided to let my daughter go to work in Thailand because of our debts...Once I saw how others migrated and returned with cash I decided to let her go too. However, when she returned from Thailand the money was not enough to pay back the loan. I borrowed from the private moneylender to pay back the micro-finance loan, and then used the micro-finance loan to pay back private moneylender. I had to lie to the micro-finance agency saying that I would use the loan for doing business and buying pigs

These quotes highlight the debt-driven and precarious nature of migration from Cambodia to Thailand. The scale of migration between the counties is significant. In 2013 estimates put the number of Cambodian migrants at close to 1 million from an economically active population of 8.4 million.   

Research conducted under the Migrating out of Poverty Research Programme in April/May 2015 and December 2016/January 2017 revealed the experiences of Cambodian migrants – and the challenges and opportunities that influence the choices that migrants and their families make. Sharing these findings with migrants and their families, as well as NGOs and government officials in both Cambodia and Thailand resulted in an agenda for action.

The undocumented phenomenon
Cambodians migrating to Thailand face considerable challenges in acquiring passports that would allow them to travel to Thailand unhindered and in safety. Although the ‘official’ price of a Cambodian passport is US$104 with a processing time of one month, for many Cambodians the reality is that they are expected to pay up to US$600 – the extra made up of fees for the migration agents and bribes to passport office officials – and, for the lucky ones, having to wait three months to receive their passport. The unlucky ones, of which there are many, are cheated out of the fee, never receiving the passport.

The challenges facing Cambodian migrants in securing passports are reflected in the large numbers of undocumented migrants; of the one million migrants to Thailand in 2013, those with papers numbered only 13,500.

What this means for many Cambodians is that if they want to seek work in Thailand they must do so without documents, calling on the services of informal brokers who smuggle them across the border in unpleasant and dangerous conditions. Once in Thailand they must work for employers without legal protection and with uncertainty over whether they will be paid or not.

Why take the risk?
Why do so many Cambodians take such risks to find work in Thailand? The answers lie both in Cambodia and Thailand. In Cambodia years of government neglect of rural areas and land grabs by ruling elites have led to a class of landless or near-landless families unable to make ends meet from their own farms, with little option but to look for paid work. Some work as farm labourers on commercial farms within Cambodia, others migrate to Phnom Penh and work in factories or as domestic workers. Many, however, are attracted to Thailand where the working conditions and pay are better than they experience within Cambodia, even for undocumented migrants.

In Thailand, the demand for construction workers, labour for fishing boats and commercial agriculture, that cannot be met by Thai workers who are reluctant to take such dangerous, dirty and degrading work, leads to a huge pull of workers from Cambodia. Unable to secure passports at home, these migrants are smuggled across the border by organized but informal brokers and linked up with employers. With little protection and wages less than that paid to Thai or documented migrants, employers benefit from this underpaid and overworked migrant workforce.

The Thai authorities both tolerate and clamp down on undocumented migrants. For the police undocumented migrants represent a lucrative source of income – fees are paid to police by employers to avoid migrants’ arrest and deportation; migrants are at risk of being picked up on the streets and thrown in jail.

At times of political and economic upheaval in Thailand undocumented migrants are easy targets for deflecting attention away from internal turmoil. Most recently in 2014, in the wake of the military coup in Thailand, when some 220,000 Cambodians fled Thailand over a two-week period in June that year, resulting in loss of earnings, trauma and further impoverishment for their families. Undocumented migrants continue to face risk of expulsion with 50,000 Cambodians expelled in 2016.

Agenda for action
For migrants and their families the desire to migrate in a safe and secure manner is of paramount importance. This means addressing the barriers that migrants face in securing affordable and timely passports from the Cambodian State: providing accessible information to migrants on the procedures for applying for passports; effective regulation of migration agents; and cessation of rent-seeking behaviour of government officials responsible for issuing passports.

In Thailand, much more needs to be done in providing protection to undocumented migrants: access to health care; access to schools for migrants’ accompanied children; and labour protection in the workplace.

The current priority of the Thai government is to ensure all migrant workers have documents by 2022. This will require a much greater degree of cooperation between Thailand and Cambodia with a focus on migrant protection.