Cambodian workers who migrate to Thailand seeking jobs and higher pay are more likely to do so illegally, which is cheaper than going through legal channels but also leaves them vulnerable to traffickers, according to a study from a U.N. agency released on Thursday.
Many undocumented migrants are aware of the risks of illegal labor migration, but the promise of employment and escape from debts accrued in Cambodia draws them across the Thai border, often through unofficial crossings, the U.N. Office of Drugs and Crime (UNODC) report says.
“Migrants initially decide to migrate from Cambodia to Thailand in order to find employment, but abuse, exploitation and trafficking arise during the journey or upon arrival to Thailand,” the report says.
Thousands of Cambodian migrants returned from Thailand beginning in late June after Bangkok enacted strict penalties for migrants working illegally in the country. Thailand later suspended enforcement of the new rules until January and has established worker centers across the country for employers to report their undocumented workers to authorities.
About 203,700 undocumented Cambodians were reported in Thailand by their employers from July 24 to Monday, according to a Labor Ministry statement.
An estimated 200,000 irregular Cambodian migrants are in Thailand at any given time, the study says, with “irregular migrants” defined as those who enter another country without following legal immigration procedures.
UNODC’s research found that “approximately 3,000 to 4,000 irregular Cambodian migrants cross into Thailand daily,” Benjamin Smith, an UNODC regional coordinator specializing in human trafficking and migrant smuggling who worked on the report, said in an email on Wednesday.
This fell far short of the figure of 100 to 200 Cambodians that Interior Minister Sar Kheng said on Wednesday. Mr. Keng said the government is attempting to close illegal border crossings used by locals to enter Thailand.
Many areas along the approximately 800 km Cambodian-Thai border are “very remote and run through wetlands or jungles, which make it difficult, if not impossible, to patrol them,” the report says.
Police officials in three border provinces on Thursday said many border crossings had been closed since last year, although some acknowledged that because they were informal passages, they were not certain how many existed.
Pum Chan, Battambang’s deputy provincial police chief, said authorities had shut down about 16 unofficial border checkpoints since June of last year.
“In my province, it is over. We shut them down so long ago,” General Chan said, before admitting that the problem may persist.
“They still cross to do illegal logging, you never know. It is out of control sometimes,” he said.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labor rights organization Central, said undocumented migrant workers—mostly employed in construction, fishing and agriculture—were vulnerable to abuse and exploitation. But crossing the border illegally was cheaper and less complicated for migrants seeking to make a better living abroad, Mr. Tola said.
“To go with the [unlicensed] broker is always cheaper, while going through the recruitment agency takes so long and is also more expensive than illegally migrating,” he said.
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