In April, 18-year-old Sophoth illegally crossed the Thai-Cambodian border to work at a factory. In July, he was arrested and sent back through a legal border checkpoint. His journey mirrors that of many Cambodian workers who continue to cross into Thailand each month despite the coronavirus-related border closures, in the hopes of earning a living wage.
“The reason I went to Thailand was because of a livelihood problem and lack of jobs in Cambodia,” Sophoth said.
Undocumented migration has long been a challenge for the two countries, but the issue has taken on heightened importance amid 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.
Land borders between both countries have been closed since March 2020, though there is little sign of a slowdown in illegal crossings. Meanwhile, as Thailand enters its latest series of lockdowns, hundreds of migrant workers have been crossing back into Cambodia, raising fear for increased coronavirus transmission despite the government’s quarantine center requirements.
While precise figures are hard to come by, Chou Bun Eng, vice-chairwoman of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, said that unlawful border crossings have increased significantly compared to the same period last year.
She said that authorities recorded 198 cases in the first six months of 2021 compared with 63 cases during the same period of time last year. Of those, 126 cases involve unlawful transportation across the border to Thailand. In total, authorities arrested 231 people.
“As we know, the Cambodia border does not have only a few crossing points,” Bun Eng said. She noted that the 500-mile-long border has numerous points at which brokers can smuggle people across.
Sophoth said he paid a broker 4,500 baht, or about $137, to bring him into Thailand. With so much money at stake, said Bun Eng, it is difficult to keep illegal crossings under control.
“It is their job [smuggling] that why we are still concerned that our citizens have ignored to pay attention to protecting their lives against human trafficking as well as protecting against COVID-19 transmission.”
Another migrant worker, Dina, 35, returned from Thailand last week “when the Thai authorities caught and sent me back to Cambodia,” he said. He is now staying at a quarantine center near the border for 14 days.
Thailand has seen a massive spike in cases over the past month, and has rolled out lockdowns in 13 provinces. On July 21, the country reported a record 13,002 cases and 108 deaths. Dina said his construction site was closed down last week to prevent the spread of COVID-19 but he had hoped to stay and find other work.
“I am afraid [of the virus] but if I return there is no food to eat in the village and it is hard work to be able to pay the bank debt,” he said.
He first moved to Thailand in 2019, taking a legal route at that time.
“In my country, we don’t have much work to do,” he said. He said he earned about 450 baht per day, or $13, in Thailand.
Hour Dararith, chief of the O’Smach checkpoint in Oddar Meanchey province, said that while official checkpoints like his remain closed except for the transporting of goods, smugglers know routes through the massive border forest.
“There is no unlawful transporting through my O’Smach checkpoint,” he said, adding that increasing numbers of migrant workers have been returning from Thailand daily due to the latest outbreak and the attendant job loss.
Earlier this month, the U.S Department of State put Cambodia on its Tier 2 watchlist in its Trafficking in Persons report, saying the Cambodian government does not full meet the “minimum standard” for the elimination of human trafficking due in part to “endemic corruption.”
Weak enforcement, a desperate population, and corruption has made it impossible to keep the border sealed, said Dy Thehoya, a program officer at the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights.
“There is still a collusion between officials and smugglers as systematic,” he said.
“There are many reasons” why migrants leave, he continued. “First, people have no choice in earning an income. There are less jobs [in Cambodia], and they have to pay off bank debt, and if they have cultivated agricultural crops there is no market for selling.”
Soum Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator at rights group Adhoc, expressed concern about Cambodia’s ability to contain the spread of COVID-19, as hundreds of migrant workers have been sent back home recently amid the lockdowns.
“First, they were arrested, after entering the territory illegally. Then they were sent back to Cambodia,” he said.
“We are worried about returning migrant workers because 90 percent of them have tested positive for COVID-19,” Chankea said.
Still, he said he doubted workers would stop migrating. In spite of the dangers, said Chankea, Cambodians “have begged brokers to bring them to Thailand,” desperate for paying jobs.