By Anne-Sophie Galli and Hun Sovadhanak
Photos: © UNICEF Cambodia/2014/Heang Path/Hun Sovadhanak/Seng Vanna
It was in the middle of the night when Sophoan* and her family left everything behind. They took with them just one bag with clothes and money as their taxi rushed towards the Thai-Cambodian border. The last four kilometres, they journeyed by foot. Their Thai taxi driver refused to go any further to avoid the border officers from establishing any connection between him and his customers. “He was afraid we’d get him into trouble”, 40 year old Sophoan says and adds: “We were illegal.”
Sophoan, her husband and her four children lived in Thailand without a stay or work permit. Now, they have joined over 177,000 Cambodian migrant workers crossing the border during the last two weeks. Most people left in Thai military trucks or buses, squeezed together with up to 60 to 150 others. Some joined the trucks voluntarily, others said they were detained by the Thai military and deported. Some, like Sophoan and her family, arranged their own transport.
Most migrants left because of rumours: “We heard that the military is hitting migrant workers, putting them into jail and shooting them to death,” says Sophoan.
The rumours started after the new Thai military government recently announced that they would increase their control on illegal foreign workers to fight labour abusers. They asked employers to hand them lists of all their employees. Many returnees explain that they lost their jobs because their employers felt pressurized. The Thai government, however, writes in a decree published this week that there is “no policy … to crack down on migrant workers”.
Currently, Cambodians can pass the Thai border back to their country without a passport due to an agreement between the two governments. The Cambodian and Thai governments said they were working on setting up offices at the border that help undocumented Cambodians to work in Thailand legally.
At Doung border crossing station, the sun is rising again. Sophoan and her family finally have made it back to their home country. The place is so crowded that people can hardly move. Immigration police officers, armed forces, NGO staff, volunteers and UNICEF workers are waving their hands around to navigate dozens of arriving and departing overcrowded buses and trucks. Aid workers are distributing instant noodles and water bottles. Medical staff take care of new returnees, many of whom feel dizzy after the trip amid temperatures crawling up to 40 degrees. Many also say that they did not have water or food for the last one or two days.
"We're lucky that we had time to pack a bag", says Vutha, Sophoan’s 41 year old husband. Several returnees who said they were detained and deported told us they had no time to pack a bag or pick up their children at school. They said they asked their relatives or friends to bring the children back to Cambodia. Some families arrive in different trucks and at different times and they struggle to find each other, says Plong Chhaya, UNICEF child protection. UNICEF works with Cambodian authorities and NGO partners to reunite them.
Sophoan holds on close to her five year old Bora who looks confused. Everyone around him is speaking Khmer. Being illegal migrants in Thailand, the family lived in constant fear of being caught by the Thai police. To protect themselves, the family pretended to be local, speaking only Thai with each other and letting none of their neighbours know where they are really from. Now, Bora can hardly express himself in his native language but he speaks Thai fluently. His parents hope that he and his sister who stayed at home to look after Bora, can go to school later this year. UNICEF supports the Cambodian government to register children of returning families, so that they can go to school. They are also encouraged to go to their local health centre where UNICEF provides free vaccinations for children.
Now, Sophoan’s family is waiting for a truck that will finally take them from the border to their home village – the place they left a year ago because they had no money or land. Escaping Cambodia’s fragile economy and attracted by higher wages and the prospect of sending remittances to poor family members at home, many Cambodians cross the border. “We couldn’t do it legally”, says Vutha with a look of desperation in his eyes. Like many others he and his family could not afford to get passports for around $135 each. In Thailand, he, his wife and his 18 year old daughter Botum worked as park guardians, together earning 7,000 baht ($216) per month.
Back in Cambodia, the Phnom Penh government has provided vehicles that bring returnees back from the border to their hometowns. The Ministry of Labour also informed families that they offer free vocational training courses or help returnees find a job.
As for Sophoan, she looks relieved. She just heard an announcement that a bus is leaving soon to their hometown. Soon, the family disappears in the crowd.
* All names of returnees are changed to protect their identity.