Thmar Koul district, Battambang province – In March 2002, Thoeun Savy became one of the many thousands of Cambodians who, each year, illegally cross the border into Thailand to find work.
She found a job in Bangkok and, a year later, her husband joined her. They left their only child, a 6-year-old daughter, she said, with relatives in their home village of Poi Yong.
On Oct 3, they were one of 921 Cambodians flown to Phnom Penh earlier this year by the Thai government as part of a high-profile campaign to rid the streets of Bangkok of what Thai Prime Minister Thaksin Shinawatra called beggars from neighboring countries.
During her time in Bangkok, the 29-year-old Thoeun Savy sold groceries at a market, earning about $8 a day. When her husband, Phoeng Man, arrived, he worked in the home of a wealthy Thai businessman, carving the cores from coconuts and also earning about $8 a day.
“Some Thais told us that we shouldn’t come to Thailand until the Cambodians change their leader,” said Phoeng Man, 30.
He didn’t ask why they would say this to him and his wife. “Because we were in Thailand illegally, we just tried to work hard, make money, and keep quiet,” he said.
Phoeng Man liked his job. “Cutting coconuts was a better job than I could get in Cambodia,” he said. “It wasn’t hard work and the hours were not too long.”
Some Thais who knew that the Thai businessman was employing illegal Cambodian immigrants were jealous and informed police, Phoeng Man said.
“When I was arrested, the boss said to get a passport and a visa and come back to Thailand to work for him. But a passport and visa are expensive and hard to obtain,” he said.
At about the same time last month, Thoeun Savy was arrested at the market where she worked. She said she had been arrested once, a year before, but her boss had paid about $77 for her release and then took it out of her salary. “Others I know have stayed longer without being arrested,” she said.
When they were taken to the jail, Phoeng Man and Thoeun Savy were told by Thai authorities that it was the Cambodian government who told the Thais to arrest and deport Cambodians back to Cambodia. “I don’t know if I believe this,” Phoeng Man said.
Phoeng Man and Thoeun Savy said they were jailed for three days. They said they couldn’t sleep because their cells were so crowded that they had to sit upright. If detainees wanted to sleep stretched out, they had to sleep on top of each other.
He called the crackdown on undocumented Cambodian workers a retaliation for the anti-Thai riots that took place in Phnom Penh in January. “They want to damage the Cambodian reputation,” he said.
And he denied that he was a beggar. “It’s up to the Thai government to say what they want to say, but I say let the people who hear about this judge for themselves.”
Mass illegal immigration from Cambodia to Thailand is not a new phenomenon. A 1999 report from the Cambodia Development Resource Institute, an independent economic research group, estimated that 82,000 Cambodians were illegally working in Thailand. Much of the money they earned as laborers or fishermen was sent home to their families.
Pawana Wienrawee, the technical director of the NGO Program for Appropriate Technology in Health in Thailand, which deals with migrant issues, said that many Thai laborers go to other countries to get higher wages for manual work. Cambodians are often welcomed to Thailand to fill in as cheap labor, she said.
“It’s a complex issue,” said Steve Croll, the Cambodia program leader of PATH. “We study people who leave Prey Veng province, and instead of going east to Vietnam, or to Phnom Penh, they go all the way across the country and into Thailand.”
The Asian Migrant Center/Mekong Migrant Network 2002 report found that as of April and May 2000, the average Cambodian fisherman working in Cambodia earned $0.50 a day, while the average Cambodian fisherman working in Thailand earned $3.50 a day.
Earnings for comparable work was usually at least double in Thailand what it was in Cambodia, according to the report. The report said smugglers trying to recruit underage workers are becoming increasingly common in the provinces bordering Thailand.
Though they hailed from provinces throughout Cambodia, many of the 921 illegal immigrants deported from Thailand to Phnom Penh—one in a group of 621 on Sept 29 and a second group of 300 on Oct 3—came from Battambang and Banteay Meanchey provinces. A total of 151 deportees came from Battambang province.
Instead of sending the Cambodians by truck over the border, the Thai officials flew them to Phnom Penh. They were then sent by the Ministry of Interior to northwestern provinces by truck.
The deportations were tied to the Thai government’s security and cleanup measures ahead of this week’s Asian Pacific Economic Cooperation forum, which is scheduled to be attended by the leaders of 21 countries, including US President George W Bush.
But Battambang provincial Police Chief Heng Chantha said earlier this month that he believed the Thais meant to insult Cambodians and the government by flying the immigrants to Phnom Penh.
“The Thais want the world to know what Cambodia looks like, to show that Cambodia is poor,” he said. “If you transport them by bus, it is quiet and nobody hears about it.”
The Thai Embassy in Cambodia would not comment for this article. The Thai government has said it did not specifically target Cambodians, and said it would also round up illegal immigrants from Laos and Burma.
Heng Chantha said that a few of the 921 deportees to Phnom Penh might have been beggars. But he added, “By labeling all the illegal immigrants as beggars, the Thai government absolved the Thai employers of responsibility for hiring illegal immigrants. If they are categorized as workers, the Thai government will have to punish the Thai bosses, which they didn’t want to have to do.”
Major Oeun Sarun, the provincial chief of immigration, agreed with Heng Chantha that the deportees who arrived in Battambang could not have been beggars, judging by their physiques.
“They were mostly young and strong men,” he said.
At Battambang police headquarters on Oct 8, Heng Chantha and Oeun Sarun displayed a list of names, with corresponding ages, sex and home villages. Most were young men, and very few were older than 40. A fair amount came from villages along National Route 5, the route leading from Battambang town to Poipet and the Thai border.
Rin Kong Serey, 20, is one of those young and strong men, and he is now living with his family, on a small farm in Poi Samrong village near Route 5.
Every year after the harvest, many farm workers have no job and a lot of free time, he said. So after this year’s harvest, he went to Thailand to be a construction worker.
His route to Thailand is common for Cambodians looking for work across the border. He paid about $64 to a Cambodian trafficker to get him to Poipet, where he crossed the border and hitched a ride on a Thai trafficker’s truck.
Before his arrest in late September, he was a construction worker in Bangkok for four months earning about $4 a day. He saved $154, which he was able to send home to his family.
“When I was arrested I had no money because I had sent everything home. I had no passport or visa. But I am not a beggar as the Thai papers said,” Rin Kong Serey said.
Rin Kong Serey spent two months in a Bangkok jail with about 20 other Cambodian detainees and called the Thai guards “fierce.”
“They lined us up in a row and made us put our hands behind our heads while lying on the cement floor and told us to roll. Then we had to stop and lie on our back while they stomped on our stomach with their feet and then walked over us,” Rin Kong Serey said.
The guards would let the detainees out for exercise, but during the exercise, they were not allowed to spit unless they asked permission of the guards to use a small spittoon in one corner of the prison yard. If they spit without permission, the Thai guards would spit at them, kick them or beat them with a bat.
Sores and blisters on his legs were still showing earlier this month, the result of infections he says he suffered from living packed in a small space with too many detainees amid poor sanitary conditions.
“We were forced to sleep on our sides because the cell was so crowded,” Rin Kong Serey said. “If we had money to pay the guards, we could sleep on our back.”
He was flown to Phnom Penh on Oct 3 in the second group of deportees and spent a couple of nights in a Dangkao district holding facility before being sent home by truck.
He commended authorities in Cambodia for their treatment of him and the other detainees.
“They treated us very well. There was good food and a good place to sleep,” Rin Kong said. He was given about $2.50, 20 grams of rice, noodles and canned fish for the trip home, and when he reached Battambang the authorities there gave him another $2.50.
Im Vin, 26, is from further up Route 5 in Poi Yong village—the same village as Thoeun Savy and Phoeng Man. He says he was also a construction worker and had worked in Thailand for 13 months. His unofficial salary was about $5 a day.
He says he borrowed about $77 from neighbors to pay the traffickers who took him to Thailand. He says the Thai trafficker was paid about $44 while the Cambodian trafficker received about $33.
“The Thai traffickers pay off the Thai police along the road so that they will not search the truck. It is an agreement,” Im Vin said.
The Thai trafficker took him straight to the construction site where he was to work. He worked without a contract, and he used the first month’s wages to pay back his neighbors’ $77, plus interest. The money he earned afterward, he sent to his wife, son and daughter.
“I heard [from other Cambodians] that the Thai bosses would say they will pay us in one month and then after a month they don’t pay, or they call the police and have us arrested as illegal immigrants,” he said.
Im Vin said his Thai boss owed him $180 at the time of his arrest. He was never paid.
“When the Thais arrested me, I did not know what was happening,” he said. “Nobody told us why we were arrested.” He said some of his friends tried to escape and were beaten upon capture.
The Thai jail guards gave him a registration number to wear upon entering jail. He later heard from other Cambodian detainees that all Cambodians in Thailand were being rounded up for deportation. He was held for 13 days and said the detainees received a small cup of rice three times a day.
The Thais didn’t tell him where he was going or when he was going to go, he said. Before the flight on Oct 3, Thai authorities gave him another registration number, some porridge and a bottle of water. A few hours later he arrived in Phnom Penh.
When the Thai military transport plane arrived in Phnom Penh with its cargo of deportees, Ministry of Interior Director General Nuth Sa An told Phoeng Man, Thoeun Savy and the other deportees not to go back to Thailand.
“He said we should go to Ratanakkiri province where there is a lot of open land for farming,” Phoeng Man said. “But I will not go because Ratanakkiri is full of malaria and it is too remote.”
He also said he might buy a motorbike and become a driver in Battambang. But he and his wife have not ruled out returning to Thailand, when the crackdown on illegal immigrants subsides.
Authorities at the Dangkao facility also told Rin Kong Serey not to return to Thailand. Cambodian authorities said Thai officials told them that Cambodians caught re-entering Thailand would be jailed for five to six months.
“I have decided not to go back to Thailand because I’ve had enough of Thai prisons,” Rin Kong Serey said. “Among the deportees, we talked about whether we would go back or not, and very few said they would return to Thailand.”
Im Vin said he doesn’t want to go back to Thailand, but he has no job. “Any job, digging, construction, anything, I would be happy to do,” he said.
One of the oldest deportees, Hem Sam Ban, 57, of Poi Samrong village, could not be interviewed for this article. The day after returning to her home village—after being arrested in Bangkok, flown to Phnom Penh and transported to Battambang—she set out again for Thailand, where until recently she sold corn at a market stall in Bangkok.
“I told my wife if she were arrested again she could be treated worse than she was after her first arrest,” said Ouch Noun, the husband of Hem Sam Ban. “But she wants to make money, more than she can make here.”