Cambodian migrant workers continue returning in large numbers, following the reopening of the Thai-Cambodian border late last week, with more than 1,400 returning to Banteay Meanchey alone on Sunday.
Sek Sokhom, director of the Banteay Meanchey provincial information department, told CamboJA on Monday that many returning migrant workers have seen their workplaces shut down, while others are escaping the COVID surge in Thailand.
“Cambodian migrant workers who return to Cambodia are increasing day by day since the border was reopened,” he said.
Sokhom said that if the numbers continue to grow, provincial authorities may have difficulty accessing enough food and supplies.
Returning migrants are tested for COVID and those testing negative sent to quarantine centers for 21 days, an increase from the 14-day quarantine in recognition of the highly contagious nature of the Delta variant. If numbers of returnees grow too high at the border, the government has made plans to move them to quarantine centers in their home provinces after one week.
Sokhom said 20 quarantine centers have been set up in Banteay Meanchey, with food donated by the government, wealthy tycoons, and charities. He admitted that sanitation for such large numbers has been an issue and urged those quarantining to help out in the cleaning.
Roeun Sothy, deputy director of Banteay Meanchey provincial health department said that on August 13, there were 840 migrant workers who returned to Cambodia including 128 people who tested positive of COVID-19. On August 14, 1,146 migrant workers returned including 124 people who tested positive, and on August 15, 1,472 migrant workers returned, including 263 positive cases.
He said that a total of 14,443 people have tested positive for COVID-19 since February 20 with 11,483 recoveries and 116 deaths.
Since the border was reopened, said Sothy, most of those positive cases are the Delta variant.
Ren Sreyna, 29, a migrant worker who returned to Cambodia early this month and camped out along the border waiting for it to reopen, said she tested positive for COVID and was sent with her three-month-old daughter to a treatment center in Banteay Meanchey.
“I came for treatment seven days ago and now, I am better and my daughter has not been infected and she is fine,” Ms Sreyna said. “My group [of returning workers] had 23 people including two infants, and three people were infected with COVID-19.”
She said that they are fed three meals a day and the food has been plentiful, but that the hygiene and sanitation was lacking with so many people in the center.
Dy Rado, deputy governor and spokesman of Oddar Meanchey Province, said that there have been a total of 5,500 positive cases, with 2,300 recoveries and nine deaths. Thus far, more than 100 cases of the Delta variant have been found in communities and among returning migrants.
“So far, the border checkpoint has been open for four days, but on the first and second days, there were not many returning workers, just 70 to 80, but yesterday the number of workers who returned was more than 600,” he said on Monday.
He said provincial authorities have been setting up quarantine centers and stocking them with food, cleaning supplies, and sleeping equipment, and arranging transportation for workers to the local quarantine centers, and on to provincial quarantine centers.
Soeum Bunrith, spokesman for Battambang province, said the province had also seen an increase in returning workers, though he was too busy to provide numbers.
Loeng Sophon, a Thailand-based project officer for Cambodian labor rights group Central, said the numbers will likely continue to increase.
“The infection figure of COVID-19 is still increasing, so most of our Cambodian migrant workers have a reason to return to Cambodia,” he said.
At a single factory in Chon Buri’s Nong Yai district, the GFN chicken processing factory, more than 1,000 Cambodian workers have tested positive for COVID.
“There were three Cambodian migrant workers who died of COVID-19 who worked for GFN factory and many people were sent to ICU,” he said. “Another Cambodian migrant worker died in Thailand’s Chachoengsao province while he was quarantining in his rental room.”
Sophon said more than 2,000 migrant workers from GFN are now trying to organize a return to Cambodia.
The situation, he said, suggested Thai factory owners were not taking adequate care of their workers and had failed to properly alert Thai health authorities.
“Most Cambodian migrant workers want to return to Cambodia because [their workplaces] are not warning [others] when they tested positive for COVID-19 and they could not find the service for treatment,” he said.
Sophon said that the Cambodian government should work with the Thai government to help migrants return to the border, rather than letting them rely on unscrupulous brokers.
“I think that if the Cambodian government facilitates with Thai authorities to find a solution for their travelling, it is better than letting them return by illegal means and sometimes getting arrested,” he said.
With so many people returning, quarantine centers have struggled to provide adequate sanitation, said Soum Chankea, coordinator of rights group Adhoc in Banteay Meanchey province.
“Thousands use the toilet together, if one person among them [is sick] all of them will be infected with the virus,” Chankea said.
A report by the Ministry of Health shows that as of August 13, Cambodia had detected a total of 494 new cases of Delta variant since March 31. Every province except Kep, Takeo, and Kratie have recorded cases.
On Monday, the Ministry of Health reported 593 new cases of COVID-19 including 236 imported cases, bringing the total count to 86,041 including 13,118 imported cases since the pandemic began in early 2020. The large majority of these cases have been recorded since February 20, when the ongoing community outbreak began in Cambodia. The ministry has also recorded 81,202 recovered cases and 1,704 deaths from the virus.
(Additional Reporting by Chea Sokny)