Figures on track to record 30% rise over 2009
Nearly 100,000 Cambodian migrant workers were deported through the Poipet international border checkpoint after entering Thailand illegally during the first 10 months of the year, a government official said this week.
Lim Sokhet, director of the Banteay Meanchey provincial labor and vocational training department, said on Monday that Thai authorities had rounded up 97,042 Cambodian workers between January and October.
The number represents an average of more than 300 illegal workers sent back to Poipet per day, and is already about 6,000 higher than the total number of illegal workers sent back through the border crossing in all of 2009.
Thai Labor Ministry figures showed in July that roughly 140,000 Cambodians were authorized to work in Thailand, either through bilateral labor agreements, or after having completed or agreed to complete the Thai government’s nationality verification process.
But the number of illegal Cambodian migrants continuing to get caught in Thailand points to a much larger underground community of alien workers, who human rights workers say are under constant threat of exploitation by Thai employers or arrest and detention by Thai authorities.
Mr Sokhet said Banteay Meanchey provincial officials and police had worked hard to implement programs educating villagers not to enter Thailand illegally and to monitor the border areas closely. But he said Thai authorities had cracked down on illegal immigrants heavily in 2010.
“More workers are being sent back because Thai authorities have been very strict,” Mr Sokhet said, adding that a total of 91,268 illegal Cambodian workers were sent back from Thailand through the Poipet border crossing in 2009.
Labor Ministry Secretary of State Othsman Hassan downplayed Mr Sokhet’s figures yesterday but said he did not have any figures of his own. He said about 82,000 Cambodian workers had been granted permits to work in Thailand while another 50,000 still needed to complete the Thai registration process.
Hun Hean, Banteay Meanchey provincial police chief, said yesterday that the number of illegal workers sent back through Poipet international border checkpoint had increased recently because the flooding in Thailand had caused migrants to find higher ground where they were more visible to authorities.
Mr Hean said that the workers being sent back usually hailed from Pailin, Battambang, Oddar Meanchey, Kompong Cham, Prey Veng, Kandal and Kampot provinces.
He said they usually crossed the Cambodian-Thai border through Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey provinces before being rounded up when they worked in the fields in Thailand.
“We have applied strict measures to prevent people from illegally crossing the border so that they cannot be cheated in Thailand,” Mr Hean said. “We don’t want them to risk their lives working illegally.”
Thai Embassy officials were unavailable yesterday.
Pung Chhiv Kek, president of the human right organization Licadho, said in an e-mail yesterday that the “illegal pattern” of migrant workers seeking work in Thailand was being driven by the complexity of registering to work in Thailand.
“That so many Cambodians immigrate to Thailand goes back to the economic gap between the two countries and to the fact that job opportunities and wages are still very low in Cambodia,” Ms Chhiv Kek said, adding that people were also likely to follow others from their village who have had success earning money abroad.
She said that there were many steps the governments of both countries could take to improve the situation for Cambodia’s migrant workers.
“This situation should be addressed by the two governments, who should try to better control the border crossing and their police…and punish the brokers and police staff involved [in facilitating illegal border crossings],” she said.
“Given the size of the illegal immigration and traffics, closely monitoring this situation and protecting Cambodian citizens who have been abused, should be a constant task of the Cambodian Embassy in Thailand.”
Andy Hall, a consultant for the Bangkok-based Human Rights and Development Foundation and former director of the HRDF’s Migrant Justice Program, said yesterday the high numbers of illegal Cambodian migrants caught by Thai authorities was unsurprising, given the abundance of work opportunities available for unskilled workers in Thailand.
“There are still huge labor shortfalls for lowly skilled workers in Thailand,” he said, adding that he was aware that Thai news organizations regularly reported about the arrest and deportation of illegal Cambodian workers.
Mr Hall, however, said Cambodians who entered Thailand illegally were placing themselves at risk of abuse. “In terms of risk, firstly, they are at risk of being caught by the government authorities, and secondly, they are at risk of being exploited by employers,” he said.
He added that migrant worker policy in Thailand was usually temporary at best and, while the government was currently treating the issue pragmatically, this was liable to change at any moment, putting migrant workers at further risk of police crackdowns.