In a move activists fear could endanger thousands of Cambodian children, Thailand plans to reduce the number of children of illegal migrants living in the country to zero by 2020, according to a newspaper report.
Thailand is the top destination for Cambodians seeking work abroad, with the Thai Ministry of Labor tallying 681,571 laborers in November 2014, most of whom lack full documentation.
Waranont Pitiwan, deputy permanent secretary at the Labor Ministry, told The Bangkok Post that the government was planning several measures to reduce the more than 118,000 children who came with their parents from Cambodia, Laos and Burma to work in the informal Thai labor market.
The measures include “ending the registration of illegal migrant workers” in favor of one-to-one agreements with individual countries, forcing migrants home at the end of their contracts, encouraging birth control among migrants and curbing illegal migration itself, the newspaper reported.
The Labor Ministry and Thai Embassy in Phnom Penh did not respond to requests for comment.
Cambodian migrant activists said the new rules would further endanger an already vulnerable population.
“So far, children of migrants do not have access to school,” said Moeun Tola, head of the labor rights group Central. “It’s very dangerous for them, because children are kept in the house or dorms while their parents are going to work.”
“They are still human beings,” he added. “Children should be supported.”
CNRP lawmaker Mu Sochua, who heads the party’s migrant outreach efforts, said that there already are “tremendous social implications for these families.”
“If their parents are undocumented, they live in fear. No school, no social services,” she said, calling for Thailand to sign and enforce a U.N. Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights convention protecting migrant workers, and for the Cambodian government to ensure their protection.
“The worse scenario is when the children must flee or are deported,” she said.
When hundreds of thousands of Cambodians fled Thailand in 2014 due to fears of violence there, children’s NGO World Vision said that many children became separated from their families in the chaos.
“Any child who is living away from their home community or family becomes more vulnerable…[to] all kind of abuse and violence, as well as the long term effects created by shifts in their education, changes to their social safety nets, and legal insecurity,” wrote Steve Cook, the organization’s advocacy manager.
Mr. Tola, of Central, said the Thai government’s moves were unlikely to deter workers who could not rely on relatives at home to care for their children.
“The migrant workers understand clearly that it is not a good idea,” he said. “It’s not safe for the children at all, but they have no choice.”