Migrant workers have started returning to Cambodia as Thai-Cambodian border checkpoints reopened Thursday and Friday, following a two-week shutdown to slow the spread of the highly contagious Delta variant of COVID-19.
During the past two weeks, hundreds of Cambodians have arrived at the locked border, amid worksite closures in Thailand, and in fear of the virus, which has surged in recent weeks.
On Friday, 60 Cambodian migrant workers returned through O’Smach checkpoint on Oddar Meanchey, according to Dy Rado, provincial deputy governor and spokesman. The group was tested and sent to quarantine before returning home. One tested positive for COVID-19, said Rado, though they do not yet know if it is the Delta variant.
Rado told CamboJA that the provincial government has been preparing for an influx of returnees.
“The provincial administration has set up two new quarantine sites that can hold 6,000 people and one mild treatment center which can receive 2,500 patients,” said Rado.
Sek Sokhom, director of Banteay Meanchey provincial information department, said that the border between Banteay Meanchey and Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province was reopened on August 12 in order to receive Cambodian migrant workers who had been stuck in Thailand during the closure. Sokhom said around 600 migrant workers returned as of Friday morning, 30 of whom tested positive for COVID-19.
“They are all doing quarantine now and being treated at quarantine sites. Most of these migrant workers have not yet been vaccinated, so there is a high chance that they possibly could get the virus,” said Sokhom.
Sokhom said they have been able to handle the influx so far but if more than 1000 migrant workers return in a single day it may be difficult for the provincial government to cover their daily food, accommodations, and treatment. He said if the numbers go too high, the returning migrant workers will be quarantined locally for just seven days before being sent to their home province, where they will quarantine for another 7-14 days.
“All migrant workers should cross the border into Cambodia legally so that they can get basic support, treatment, and stop the spread [of COVID] into the communities,” said Sok Sokhom.
Roeun Sothy, deputy director of Banteay Meanchey provincial health department, said he does not have total figures for the province but noted that Boeng Trakuon checkpoint alone saw 332 Cambodian migrant workers return in just one day.
An estimated 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers in total have returned home since the start of the pandemic in 2020, according to a July UN report.
Moeun Tola, executive director at Central, said that reopening the border to receive Cambodian migrant workers back into the country is a good solution to prevent them getting stuck in Thailand. He said many were likely to try and return illegally if the border stayed closed, making it harder to prevent the spread of COVID.
“But I think the local authorities at the border province have not prepared well to get those migrants back due to the shortage of framework and technical capacities,” said Tola.
Loeng Sophon, a Thailand-based project officer for Cambodian labor rights group Central, said most Cambodian migrant workers want to return home given the situation in Thailand. He said some of them have contracted the virus but have not received treatment.
“Some Cambodian migrants especially undocumented workers are rejected from receiving medical treatment properly as the hospital is overwhelmed with the patient,” said Sophon.