Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Wednesday that 100 to 200 Cambodians illegally cross the border with Thailand every day, well under an estimate from a U.N. agency that puts the figure at 3,000 to 4,000.
Illegal border crossings needed to be identified and closed, and the government had already shut down some, Mr. Kheng and other officials said at a meeting at the ministry in Phnom Penh, where the minister presented the government’s revised national plan to combat human trafficking.
“People cross the border for different purposes, every day on average, there are at least 100 to over 200 Cambodians who cross illegally via the Cambodian-Thai border,” Mr. Kheng said.
But a regional coordinator from the U.N. Office on Drugs and Crime said its research had found that “approximately 3,000 to 4,000 irregular Cambodian migrants cross into Thailand daily,” defining “irregular migrants” as any who enter another country without following legal immigration procedures.
Most estimates suggest there are about 200,000 irregular Cambodians in Thailand at any one time, Benjamin Smith, the regional coordinator specializing in human trafficking and migrant smuggling, said in an email on Wednesday.
“There is general consensus that the number of irregular migrants is considerably greater than the number of people migrating through regular channels,” Mr. Smith said.
Mr. Kheng said that to combat illegal migration, the government would study the reasons why people were crossing the border.
“Are they going there to cut rosewood or have they been trafficked?” he said, referring to illegal logging of valuable timber. “Through research we will learn.”
He said the government needed to speed up the passport application process for migrant workers and raise awareness among them about the risks of illegal migration and the need for proper documents.
Chou Bun Eng, secretary of state with the Interior Ministry and vice chair of the national committee to combat human trafficking, said authorities had already begun shutting down illegal checkpoints on the border.
“We don’t want to have informal border checkpoints because it is hard for us to control,” Ms. Bun Eng said.
“The informal border checkpoints are the nexus of all forms of crime, and so we already closed down some, and now we are going to study them again and will decide which ones will be closed down, why and how,” she said.
While most people cross the border voluntarily, some are tricked or misled by those assisting them to cross, and drug and human trafficking continue to be “big problems,” Mr. Smith of UNODC said.
“You need an effective law enforcement crackdown on the criminal networks involved in trafficking, but, since those traveling irregularly are much more vulnerable to trafficking, and given the porous nature of the border, you also need measures to deter the use of irregular migration and actively promote safe, regular migration,” he said.
(Additional reporting by Matt Surrusco)