Border Workers Say Smuggling Crackdown Leads to More Corruption
poipet, Banteay Meanchey – On days that Keo Sovanrith can’t make enough money to feed his three children, he depends on the kindness of strangers by sending his little ones out to beg.
He used to be able to make about $1.50 a day by carrying goods through illegal border crossings, but since the government’s crackdown on smuggling several months ago, he has had difficulty making ends meet.
Now, instead of paying a 500 riel ($0.14) bribe at an illegal crossing, Keo Sovanrith, a former soldier, said he must pay about 10 different officials at the legal border checkpoint. And he said they never give him a receipt.
“Now there are many checkpoints and many officials to pay,” Keo Sovanrith said. “There is no money left for me.”
Government officials have made fighting smuggling a top priority, estimating Cambodia loses millions of dollars a year from the illegal activity. In December, Prime Minister Hun Sen blasted corrupt customs officials and vowed to crack down on smuggling.
Here in the northwest, the government closed down 19 illegal border crossings about six months ago in order to try to control smuggling. But rather than reduce smuggling, workers like Keo Sovanrith say the system has merely become more expensive, with multiple bribes required to be paid at the official crossing, rather than one payment at an illegal crossing.
Pen Simon, director of the country’s customs department at the Ministry of Finance, characterizes the problem as being one of transition. He said even though the situation hasn’t immediately improved, the government’s action is good for the country over the long term.
“The crackdown is good to bring in more revenues for the country,” Pen Simon said. “We are still trying to fight corruption, and this will take time.”
Last year, Banteay Meanchey Governor Thach Korn told Hun Sen that there were too many government officials in Poipet. Hun Sen agreed to move out some ministry representatives, leaving local officials to patrol the area, but a timetable for their removal has not been set.
Even Neang Vanna, deputy chief of the Poipet customs office, notes there are problems because of the high number of officials stationed at his border crossing.
“Businessmen used to cross this gate, but now they look for other crossings,” Neang Vanna said.
“They even go to Sihanoukville. It’s difficult here because there are many checkpoints compared to other places.”
In January, the Poipet customs office made almost $1 million in revenues for the national government, but in February, only about half that much came in, said Neang Vanna.
As for complaints about bribe taking, Neang Vanna said the accusation is a complicated one, because migrant workers often find ways to get around paying customs duties and other fees.
Often a businessman will bring in a large load of goods, but he divides the goods to be carried among many workers so customs officials and police find it difficult to determine to whom the goods belong, Neang Vanna said.
“It’s difficult to collect tax and then we lose money,” said Neang Vanna, adding that receipts are always given for payments.
But workers tell a different story. Yang Ly, 37, moved here from Kompong Chhnang more than a year ago to have a better life, “but in the end, it’s still the same kind of living.”
He used to earn between $3 and $6 before the crackdown on smuggling, but now he often earns less than $1 a day. On some days “I don’t get a single baht.”
“It’s not officials’ fees, it’s corruption,” Yang Ly said. “Maybe at one out of 10 checkpoints I’ll get a receipt. Mostly, the money is just pocketed.”
Sar Chamrong, chief of O’Chrou district, which includes Poipet, dismissed claims that people’s lives have gotten worse since the crackdown on smuggling.
“The crackdown has not affected workers,” he said. “They are still allowed to carry goods for people.”
But Khieu Phalla, a communication, organization and education officer for Norwegian People’s Aid, an NGO in Poipet, said he has seen people’s lives grow worse since the crackdown.
“People here are becoming poorer,” he said. “That’s why crime and other problems are going up.”
After living in Poipet for more than six years, Keo Sovanrith still hasn’t made enough to buy a home. He and his family live on the side of a road, and he is worried that in addition to his decrease in earnings, his family will also be forced off their land because of all the land disputes taking place in Poipet.
“Poipet is evil,” he said. “It sucks the blood out of people.”