Prime Minister Hun Sen on Monday ordered harsher fines for migrant workers who attempt to evade quarantine when returning from Thailand after a series of breaches over the weekend, including one man who lost a leg to landmine while crossing the border under the cover of dark.
Fines starting at $250 will be implemented for quarantine dodgers, the prime minister said, taking aim at officials in Battambang province, where the Kamrieng district police chief has been suspended from work over the release of two suspects accused of smuggling migrants across the border.
“I request the arrest of all relevant people related to bringing people through unofficial checkpoints,” Mr. Hun Sen said in a recording broadcast via his Facebook account.
The prime minister said that officials at the border should be on high alert for “ringleaders,” who have made a cottage industry of helping Cambodians cross the border outside of official channels, after a group was found to have made it to their home in Takeo province over the weekend.
“I issued an order, please, all officials implementing the law must restrict ringleaders who bring people across the border without quarantining,” Hun Sen said, threatening to fire officials who fail to follow his instructions.
“We must strengthen measures to protect people’s health,” he said, calling for authorities in neighboring countries to cooperate in stopping the flow of illegal border crossings.
Kim Ponlork, police chief in Battambang’s Kamrieng district, was stood down on Monday after allowing two smugglers to go free, according to deputy provincial governor Soeum Bunrith, who said that 11 suspects had been arrested since migrants began flowing back to Cambodia.
“We are investigating because authorities arrested 11 ringleaders but it was reported that only nine were sent to court,” he said, adding that police were seeking the whereabouts of two others.
Ponlork had been in charge of preparing documents to prosecute the 11, he said, adding that any smugglers must face the full force of the law.
After about 130,000 Cambodians rushed home when borders were shut in March 2020, a new wave of returnees started in December, after an outbreak of Covid-19 began in a seafood market in Samut Sakhon where many migrants from Cambodia and Myanmar are employed.
Of 35,665 that returned via official channels since the Samut Sakhon outbreak, 11,857 remain in quarantine camps at the border, with the remainder having completed their 14 days and returned home, Mr Hun Sen said.
At the request of the prime minister, the justice and health ministries will fast track amendments to a 2015 sub-decree on protecting infectious diseases at the border, Justice Ministry spokesman Chin Malin told CamboJA.
Previously the maximum fine for offenders, $250 would become the minimum, he said.
“Fines prevent crimes by scaring people … this is for the benefit of public health and the nation,” Malin said.
Cambodia has recorded just 489 cases since the pandemic began, with no deaths and all but 10 recovered, including a cluster of at least 89 cases at the border.
However, a new strain of the virus that scientists say is more contagious and more resistant to vaccinations has been found on three foreigners – two Indians and one Chinese – who entered Cambodia earlier this month, the Health Ministry said in a statement Monday.
The government began to roll out its vaccination program last week, following the arrival of the first shipment of 600,000 doses of the Sinopharm vaccine donated by China, with high ranking officials and journalists prioritized for inoculation.
On Sunday night, Yoeun Ran, 33, stood on a landmine while attempting to evade authorities and enter Banteay Meanchey province illegally, provincial police chief Sith Luos said.
“He intended to avoid quarantine and accidentally stepped on a mine, which exploded, injuring his arms and cutting off his leg,” Luos said, adding that Ran, who had been working in a sugar plantation, was alone and not using a broker to guide him home.
Prime Minister Hun Sen appealed to all Cambodians to follow instructions from the Health Ministry, at the border and elsewhere, saying that quarantine was only “slight” inconvenient compared to the risk of infection.
Am Sam Ath, deputy director of human right group Licadho backed the government’s bid to crack down on people smugglers and the introduction of increased fines.
“We appeal for additional restrictions due to migrant workers being brought illegally into Cambodia by ringleaders without quarantine,” said Sam Ath. “It is very dangerous.” (Additional reporting by Khuon Narim)