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Home bittersweet home? Returnee migrant workers flee Thailand but face uncertain future

Tith Kongnov and Kong Arey / Khmer Times Share:
Returnee migrant workers get swab tests after being taken to the quarantine centre in Battambang province. KT/Chor Sokunthea

Migrant workers who flee from Thailand by illegal transport providers and then trek for hours to cross the border into Cambodia, face an uncertain future once back in in the Kingdom and free from quarantine.

The workers, who number between 50 and 100 a day depending on which border crossing, official or unofficial they use, are flocking back to their homeland for a multitude of reasons.

They usually arrive at the border in the pre-dawn hours  and have to trek through at times treacherous grounds for a couple of hours until they reach the unofficial border marker, a stream which is about a metre in depth, and which brings them relief from fear, danger and hunger.

Trai Roth, Deputy District governor of Sampov Loun told Khmer Times yesterday that most migrant workers who returned to Cambodia don’t come through the International Checkpoints but rather through illegal and scantily patrolled corridors.

“In the Sampov Loun quarantine centre, from December 21 to January 31, we have had a total of 304 migrant workers, of whom 142 were females. Of these, 239 workers have been discharged after being tested negative for COVID-19 twice and released from quarantine. A total of  89 people, including 38 women are still quarantined, including five who arrived by military truck while Khmer Times reporters were at site at about 9am on Sunday,” Roth said.

He added that the migrant workers who had returned to Cambodia or travelled to Thailand for employment, had largely done so illegally via recruitment agents and middlemen, who provided recruitment, transportation and guaranteed jobs on arrival in Thailand.

They came back to the country by travelling in pirate taxis or mini busses which dropped them close to the border and, at times isolated places, to avoid detection by Thai authorities.

“When they arrive at the quarantine centre, which are schools, we have caterers who prepare food for them and others already in quarantine. The government has allocated $5 each per day per person for food, irrespective of whether they are adults, children or infants,” Roth said.

He also said that at the Sampov Loun quarantine centre, there are soldiers on security detail to ensure order and also prevent the migrant workers and or their family members from attempting to sneak out of the centre by scaling the walls, which are about a metre and half in height. If their relatives come to visit and bring food for them, they are only allowed to bring it to the collection and distribution centre and not directly to those in quarantine.

Migrants are isolated by border security personnel after returning from Thailand. Supplied

Tep Phalla , acting  director of Sampov Loun health office, said that the number of migrant workers being registered for quarantine in the district now number between five and 20 people per day and that at times they arrive past midnight while  some are brought in the morning.

He added that to date, only  two migrant workers had fled the quarantine centre but the authorities cooperated well  with the local police and general public to track them down, detain and bring them back to the centre where they were given a severe warning and lecture.

“They were from this district and as such, they just wanted to have some change of environment and visit their family after being away at work in Thailand for years or months in the case of new workers,” he said.

“I keep advising the migrant workers not to try to run away from the quarantine centre and motivate them to stay put. I also award them with a certificate showing that they had successfully completed their quarantine of 14 days and are free of COVID-19, thus enabling them to go home without fear or prejudice,” Phalla said.

“After the two escapes, we deployed soldiers and since then there has been no further case,” he added, although those in quarantine and who spoke to Khmer Times in return for anonymity alleged that more than a handful had fled and some had not been found.

Both versions could not be independently confirmed.

Nang Khleoung, 34, a migrant worker said that he worked in Thailand as a fruit harvester and claimed he earned between $13 and $16 per day.

One of the schools being used as a quarantine centre in Battambang province. KT/Chor Sokunthea

“I came from Thmar Koul district, Battambang province and I went to work in Chantha Buri province, Thailand. My employment, logistics and other essentials were all facilitated by a broker to whom I had to pay 1,800 baht (about $60). There was a group of five in my trip to Thailand,” he said.

Khleoung said he returned to Cambodia because he lost his job and there were no more opportunities to work in Thailand.

“I travelled to somewhere close to the Thai-Cambodia border by a pirate taxi and from there  I had to walk through the forest and farmland and finally arrived at a stream at about 4 am to evade patrolling Thai soldiers,” he added.

Kim Ya, 34, from Kampot province’s Angkor Chey district, said she had been working in Thailand for two years  as a gardener and returned to Cambodia by almost the same method, incurring about $60 for transport and an additional 400 baht (about $13) for a guide and porter to  carry her luggage.

“I went to work in Thailand before the COVID-19 outbreak there and after the virus started spreading rapidly, my place of employment was closed  for a few months. I had no alternative but to return to Cambodia. I must stress that I am a legal worker with valid employment permits and travel documents,” Ya said.

She added that she did not know when she would be able return to work in Thailand as she did not know when the situation there would return to normal and employment opportunities will become available again to enable her to earn a respectable wage to give her family a better life.

“COVID-19 ruined everything for me and my family,” she lamented.

Lok Kimseng, 28, said he went to work in Thailand illegally and needed to spend about $50 on brokers who secured him a job as a fruit harvester for about nine months. However, after the sudden COVID-19 outbreak in Thailand, he lost his job and was forced to return to Cambodia.

“While returning to Cambodia, I needed to walk a long while through farmland until I arrived at a stream. I was too afraid to cross the stream, during the day so I hid and crossed the stream at night and stumbled upon our soldiers,” Kimseng said.

Kong Sambath, deputy governor of  Battambang province’s Kamrieng district, told Khmer Times late Saturday night that when Cambodian soldiers spotted people crossing the stream which was located about 20 metres away from the border in Thai territory, they encouraged the migrant workers to cross the border safely with almost no resistance or obstacles from Thai forces.

He said that once across the border, they were gathered in groups and transported straight to the school being used as a quarantine centre which could house 184 people, adding that at 7am the following day (if arrivals are pre-dawn), swabs are taken, compiled and dispatched to Battambang provincial health office which sends them to Phnom Penh for analysis. Results take up to two-and-a-half days.

Sambath said: “Some people crossing are individuals but most do so in groups of on average about 20 people, consisting of men, women and children. They are hungry, desperate, worn out physically and mentally and have many reasons and excuses to cross the border back to Cambodia,” he said. “These range from having no job and money, being unable to make a living in Thailand, fear of a rapidly spreading and deadly COVID-19 situation, family events like weddings and funerals and also for harvesting.”

He added that they are provided three meals a day in quarantine, are permitted to roam freely inside the gated and walled compounds of the school but are not allowed outside. Visitors are not allowed inside beyond a few metres into the compound to hand over personal effects or extra food to family members at a handover point.

“We are not accepting any more migrant workers now and will close the centre temporarily after about a week for a period of 10 days or so. By then, all those remaining in the centre would have been cleared to return home and the centre will be thoroughly sanitised before being reopened to accept new batches of returnee migrants whose numbers have dwindled between December and the early part of January,” Sambath said.


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