Like so many other migrants around the world, 38-year-old Cambodian construction worker Tuloh Saith rushed to return home as soon as possible once it became clear the Covid-19 crisis would not just be a passing nuisance.
But unlike so many others, he was banned by his own government from flying home. Alongside 150 other Cambodians in Malaysia, Saith was left stranded amid the looming global health and economic crisis after Prime Minister Hun Sen banned them from boarding a flight in Kuala Lumpur due to fears of the virus.
“I slept two nights at Kuala Lumpur International Airport, to wait for approval to depart from K.L. to Cambodia,” Saith said from Perak, which lies on the Malayan Peninsula about four hours from both the Thai border and Kuala Lumpur.
“Unfortunately, we had to wait for nothing, and I returned to Perak where I rent a dorm room with my sister-in-law, her husband and another Cambodian family.”
A Cham Muslim, Saith said he had he worked as a fisherman from Thbong Khmum province’s Kroch Chmar district before learning of the better paid work in Malaysia. With a wife sick with diabetes, and three children — an 11-year-old daughter and two sons, 6 and 8 years old — the chance to earn enough to send back more in remittances than he could earn fishing was too much to pass up.
“When I was in Cambodia, I fished for a living and my wife helped me bring the fish to sell at the market. But we did not make enough to live — there was less and less fish, and everything was getting more expensive,” Saith said.
“When I worked [in Malaysia], I could send about $250 home every month.”
Although only 3,000 Cambodians work in Malaysia, according to official figures from Cambodia’s Labor Ministry, the Phnom Penh-based Center for the Alliance of Labor and Human Rights estimates that the true figure is closer to 50,000.
Facing difficulties getting work visas in Malaysia, Saith and tens of thousands of others work without documentation, instead making use of Asean’s liberal tourist visa exemptions for citizens travelling from fellow Southeast Asian nations.
It was a perilous existence even before the outbreak of Covid-19, with Saith earning only 50 to 60 Malaysian Ringgit each day (about $11.50 to 13.75) and having to depart Malaysia every month to at least keep his valid visa stamps.
Now without work or the ability to travel — both due to the virus — his perilous existence has become one of extreme desperation, made only worse by the Cambodian government’s refusal to let them return home last month.
“Both of us — me and my brother-in-law — have not had any work for over two months now and we have run out of money to pay for our daily expenses,” he said. “My sister-in-law has only just begun to have some work now, sewing some clothes at our dorm for a piece rate, to earn some income to feed us.”
However, he said that the work did little to even help cover their 500 ringgit monthly rental fees (about $115), not to mention expenses like food. And with no employment or any indication of when they will be allowed to return home, the uncertainty was making even short-term decision-making difficult.
Hun Sen announced in a press conference on April 7 that he had banned the return of the 150 Cambodians — a group that included tourists and students, besides migrant workers — due to fears they would bring Covid-19. In the weeks before, dozens of Cambodians returning from Malaysia had tested positive for the virus once back in the country, with many having attended an Islamic festival in Kuala Lumpur in March marred by the presence of a “super-spreader.”
The decision to block citizens from returning home was an abnormal reaction to a problem that has been faced by many nations around the world in the wake of Covid-19, according to Adrian Pereira, the executive director of the North South Initiative, a Malaysia-based organization that advocates for marginalized groups.
“These Cambodian people should have been facilitated a long time ago by their government. Thailand and other governments like India have made efficient plants and systems to repatriate their nationals,” Pereira said in an email.
“It is mind boggling why Cambodia can’t do this,” he said. “As Cambodia is not far from Malaysia, there are many carriers, and the government should have hired a plane and set a protocol for the workers to return home’’.
“There is also a pregnant migrant who should have returned home for a safe delivery,” he added. “Now with this big blunder by the Cambodian government, she will have difficulty to return home safely. We hope the Cambodian government immediately helps her and the others who are stranded to return home.”
Foreign Affairs Ministry spokesman Koy Kuong said Cambodia’s government was in the process of determining how to get the stranded citizens back home. But he would not say when or how the government planned to get any of them back.
“The Cambodian government is now looking for a solution to facilitate and assist the 150 Cambodians stuck in Malaysia to repatriate to Cambodia,” Kuong said.
He also declined to respond to questions about whether the government would help provide financial assistance to Cambodians attempting to get the medical certification that is now required for those trying to return home. On May 21, the Cambodian Embassy in Kuala Lumpur announced that Cambodian and foreign nationals alike who wish to travel to Cambodia must get a certificate proving they have tested negative to Covid-19 within 72 hours of their entry to the country.
For many cash-strapped Cambodians stuck in Malaysia, that is simply not an option — but neither is remaining in Malaysia without work. Pereira from the North South Initiative said that he could not imagine what it would be like to be stuck in Malaysia as a Cambodian migrant worker without any source of income.
“Malaysia is not a cheap place. Things are expensive,” Pereira said.
For Saith, who has not had a valid visa since mid April, there is no ideal scenario. Even if he was able to return to Cambodia, he explained, he would still not be able to earn enough money to pay for his wife’s insulin needs just by catching fish.
“I have to make enough money to pay for her medical bills,” he said. “But it does not make sense for me to stay in Malaysia, as I will only have more expenses’’.