bangkok – With a Thai-style haircut, a white t-shirt and blue pants, Dy Preang was trying his best last month to look like a Thai as he walked down a sidewalk of this country’s biggest city.
But the Thai-speaking Cambodian’s walk wasn’t a relaxed walk. He was going to meet other Cambodians who work in Thailand illegally.
And like his friends, Dy Preang is always jumpy about meeting a Thai policeman.
“I live like a frog,” he said. “I have no freedom to walk and live. I don’t have a passport or a visa, so when I see a policeman I am very scared.”
Like thousands of Cambodians, Dy Preang came to Thailand because higher-paying jobs are more readily available than in Cambodia. A 1999 Cambodian Development Resource Institute working paper on labor migration to Thailand estimated that 82,000 Cambodians were working there.
But the potential financial benefits for people like Dy Preang come with the risk of being cheated by guides who charge about $65 to help Cambodians cross the border, usually near Poipet or Koh Kong.
There is also the constant fear of being caught by Thai authorities and ending up penniless and in jail.
Dy Preang has been a construction worker in Bangkok for more than two years, earning about $5 a day. Last month, he was on his way to see friends who could help send money home to his family in Battambang province.
“I will try to stay here one more year to earn more money before going home,” he said. “But I am worried about Thai policemen who wait near the border for Cambodians.”
Other Cambodians come to Thailand to work in factories, on farms or on fishing boats.
But some workers returning to Cambodia lose all their money near the border when they are arrested by Thai policemen who guess that the Cambodians are carrying their savings, said Dy Preang.
This happened to Nganh Tun, who returned to Battambang province earlier this year after working in Thailand in 2000.
He lost more than $500—almost one year’s worth of savings—and spent three months in jail after a policeman stopped him on the street in Bangkok.
“I worked very hard to get this money,” he said. “I had hoped that I would return home and take this money to my wife. But after that, I had nothing.”