Battambang provincial police officials detained on Tuesday more than 100 migrant workers allegedly attempting to cross illegally into Thailand despite ongoing pandemic restrictions.
Civil society groups say Cambodian migrant workers are gradually returning to Thailand due to inadequate livelihoods and joblessness in their home country. Land borders between the countries have been closed since March 2020 but there is little sign of a slowdown in illegal crossings. At the same time, hundreds of migrant workers have been returning from Thailand to Cambodia, raising fears of increased coronavirus transmission despite the government’s quarantine center network.
Battambang provincial police Chief Sat Kimsan confirmed on Tuesday that more than 100 migrant workers had been detained that day in the province’s Kamrieng district. He said the migrants had been detained in the afternoon and were being questioned by police, but didn’t add any other details.
However, a border protection police battalion based in the district posted on Facebook that authorities had on Tuesday raided four guesthouses that had allegedly been assisting Cambodian migrant workers cross illegally into Thailand. Police detained 130 workers, the post read.
Undocumented migration has long been a challenge for both countries, but the issue has taken on heightened importance during the pandemic. As Cambodia and Thailand struggle to keep the coronavirus in check, migrant workers say they have little choice but to cross the border — whether or not it remains closed.
Pech Vanna, director of the Cambodia-Thailand Border Relations office, said there are no workers legally crossing to Thailand because the land border between both countries remains closed.
“They are still coming and up to 200 to 300 people per day have been sent back by Thai authorities,” Vanna said. “We are still restricted from travelling by the same measure.”
He said Thai authorities are still restricting travel due to the ongoing COVID-19 outbreaks in both countries.
“Now they [workers] cannot go. If they go, they will be arrested,” Vanna said. “We have seen workers who were sent back but we don’t know which checkpoints that they went through.”
He said police officials have been deployed to guard all checkpoints to prevent illegal crossings.
Soum Chankea, provincial coordinator at rights group Adhoc, said people who are still crossing the border do so as they cannot earn income in Cambodia. During a period of economic recession, Chankea said, financial challenges such as bank debts are requiring workers to immigrate from their hometowns.
“They have no choice but to migrate to Thailand, although they have known the risks of COVID-19 and arrest by Thai authorities,” Chankea said.
“If they don’t migrate, how can they earn income in their local communities,” he said, adding that authorities have not prioritized finding new jobs for returned migrants.
Chankea acknowledged that authorities have provided social assistance during the COVID-19 crisis but hasn’t provided enough long-term support to prevent migration.Dy Thehoya, a program officer for labor rights group Central, said his organization was concerned about the hazards to workers migrating during the pandemic.
“We are worried that they will be caught or imprisoned because Thailand has not yet opened their border, as well as the risk of infection of COVID-19,” he said.
Thehoya said Central has recorded about 250,000 migrant workers who have returned so far in 2021.
Battambang deputy Governor Soeum Bunrith declined to comment. Banteay Meanchey Governor Oum Reatry and Oddar Meanchey Governor Pen Kosal could not be reached.