Four-year-old Bopha and her six-year-old brother Sopheak
walk to school in Siem Reap province.©UNICEF Cambodia/2017/Bona Khoy
Siem Reap Province, Cambodia, September 2017 – Mok Pen commune is located in rural Siem Reap, where the resorts and attractions of the provincial capital are replaced by rice fields.
It is home to a family whose lives have been dramatically changed by migration. Four-year-old Bopha and her six-year-old brother Sopheak play on the land surrounding their traditional Khmer home – a small, wooden building, consisting of an open kitchen and a living space that doubles up as a bedroom.
There is a small courtyard outside the house littered with rubbish where chickens and stray dogs roam.
The children are cared for by their great-aunt, Trop, as their parents, aunt and uncle have migrated to Thailand, a choice many Cambodians make in search of a higher income and a more secure future.
With no source of income in their home village, Bopha and Sopheak’s parents had to leave their family behind two years ago in search of work, as did 53,000 other Siem Reap residents who were documented as leaving the province in 2014.
Their parents found jobs in construction, a sector known for its low wages and hazardous conditions.
In two years of working away, the parents have only been able to return home once for the Khmer New Year in April, 2017. They were only able to give their family a small amount of cash during this trip back home.
The children live a simple life with their great-aunt. They each need a small amount of money every day to cover for their modest meal of rice and meat, and informal school fee.
As the sole, full-time carer of the two children, Trop is unable to work and relies on the small remittance sent from their parents in Thailand.
Quite often in these situations the responsibility taken by local governments on a nationwide scale is limited; with a lack of capacity and awareness from commune councils in addressing issues related to migration, including care for children left behind.
“The children sometimes just sit and look west. When they used to ask where their parents have gone, I say ‘Thailand’ and point in that direction. They miss their parents deeply,” said Trop.
“It’s not right that the parents are away from their children. Everyone should live together happily,” she added.
Trop also supports and cares for her brother who has intellectual disabilities. This further drains the family’s finances and limits her ability to provide sufficient, nutritious food for the two young children.
On days when she cannot afford rice for the whole family she will borrow from other villagers. When the remittance arrives she can pay back her creditors, but until then she is in debt to fellow villagers.
Health is also an area of serious concern for Trop and the children. With the family’s finances already stretched, paying for additional expenses such as medical bills and transport to clinics is not an option.
The family are not registered under the IDPoor scheme and so are not entitled to free healthcare.
Despite all of these difficulties, the children have a better life now that their parents have migrated, explained Trop.
“They eat better. There is more money to buy food now than when the parents were unemployed at home,” she said.
The most direct positive impact of migration for children is an increased household income; even if this comes as a result of remittance payments, as is the case with Trop and her family. This increased income can be directly linked to an improved diet.
According to the 2014 Commune Database (CDB) survey, over half a million adults migrated out of Cambodia to surrounding countries during the same year for economic reasons.
There are many factors that affect whether children migrate with parents. These include the expected living conditions of parents, the age of the children and the availability of services such as education and healthcare for children who migrate.
As Bopha and Sopheak remained in their home village, they have been able to enrol in a local school, with the fee covered by remittance payments.
At school, both children receive a rice allowance from the World Food Programme. This provides them with 10 kg of rice a month and complements their school meals. But this is the only help they receive as a family from any entity.
The migration of the parents and the decision to leave the two children in Cambodia has improved their general living standards. However, an improvement in living standards does not cancel out the negative impact of migration on the young children.
A recent UNICEF-commissioned report on the Impact of Migration on Children in Cambodia found that outside the capital city Phnom Penh, services provided to vulnerable families is very limited.
The report revealed – through interviews with commune council members and village chiefs – that migration and associated social issues that arise in the community are not a priority for local authorities.
The report recommends that the IDPoor scheme is revised to allow for more frequent and regular updating of the list of poor families so that more families can access social services. Additionally, the establishment of a mechanism at sub-national administration level is recommended to help identify vulnerable children, including those left at home by migrating parents to provide support or to refer to relevant services.
These changes would provide a variety of benefits for vulnerable people such as Trop, Bopha and Sopheak.
To make this become a reality, intensified action is required at national and sub-national levels to ensure public services are accessible for those who need them the most.