Thai Junta Puts Cambodian Migrants At Risk

Khmer Times, June 19, 2014

PHNOM PENH, (Khmer Times) –More than 200,000 Cambodian migrant workers have been deported or fled Thailand amid fear of military raids on illegal labour after the Thai junta publicly announced earlier last week its policy to harshly deal with illegal migration issues. Such an unprecedented exodus of migrant workers creates huge troubles for Cambodia as it is striving to restore public trust and confidence, find a political breakthrough and steam up socio-economic development. 

This was believed to be triggered by the perceived hostile rhetoric of the junta and the rumours spread quickly among the Cambodian workers, and even their employers, that the junta would use all measures including detaining and physical punishments on them. Such rumours came after the junta outlined their policy “to prevent [an] illegal work force from entering into the country and give more work opportunities to Thai nationals.”

According to a spokeswoman for the Thai Army, illegal migrants “will be arrested and deported.” Illegal migration is a threat to national security. “We see illegal workers as a threat because there were a lot of them and no clear measures to handle them, which could lead to social problems,” she added.

Those returning migrant workers were reportedly very much worried about their safety and security in Thailand after the military coup on May 22. Some said that the Thai military accused them of having a political link with the pro-Thaksin red-shirt movement in Thailand and were afraid of being arrested, detained or even shot. 

The Thai Ministry of Foreign Affairs immediately denied expelling or deporting those undocumented migrant workers. It stated that it was the “cleanup process” to reduce illegal activities. On 17 June, Thai Permanent Secretary of Foreign Affairs Sihasak Phuangketkeow met with Cambodian Ambassador Ms. Eat Sophea to clarify that Thailand did not have any policy to arrest or deport Cambodian migrant workers. 

In response, Cambodia would encourage its migrant workers to return to Thailand through legal means. Moreover, telephone hotlines were set up to provide information and necessary measures to have an orderly deportation and to minimize the spread of rumours. 

Such an event brings about many problems and challenges for the Cambodian government in many ways. The Cambodian government raised concerns, but restrained from lodging diplomatic protest. Minister of Interior Sar Kheng stated, “The army has rushed to deport workers who are considered illegal without prior notice or discussion with Cambodia, or at least making contact with provinces along the borders.” 

“I think the current Thai army leadership must be held responsible for all the problems that have occurred, including the loss of life,” he added. At least nine Cambodian workers were reportedly killed on their way from Thailand

International and local civil society groups strongly blamed the junta for not respecting the rights and dignity of migrant workers. The Cambodian Human Rights and Development Association (ADHOC), “calls on the Thai authorities to immediately investigate allegations of killings of Cambodians and ensure that the repatriation of Cambodians is carried out with respect to their inherent human dignity.” 

Regional Director for Asia and the Pacific of the International Migration Organisation (IOM), Andrew Bruce said, “This rapid movement of people is unprecedented in this region in recent years, outside of conflict and natural disasters.” 

The opposition party took the opportunity to attack the ruling party for failing to provide employment opportunities to its people. The opposition also tries to play its part in helping restore the chaotic situation. In his letter to General Prayuth Chan-ocha, president of the Cambodian National Rescue Party Sam Rainsy requested the junta to “help ensure the safety and the dignity of all Cambodians still living on Thai soil.” 

To deal with such a chaotic situation, the Cambodian government and civil society groups quickly offered support to the returning migrants through the provision of transport, health care, food, water, and other basic needs. However, the impacts and challenges are huge. The migrants need regular income to support their livelihoods and family, but now they are facing difficulties and uncertainty. It is estimated that these migrants remit about US$ 230 millions annually to support their families back home. 

The government has a huge task ahead. It needs to provide skill-development training programs to those returning migrant workers and assist them to enter the job market. Other measures may include more investments in rural infrastructure, urban-rural connectivity, and rural economic sector development. 

A short-term solution would require the government to identify and map out the skills of those returned migrants and find them opportunities. Social security funds and social safety net programs must be expanded to outreach those migrants. 

As for a long-term solution, more vocational training centres and schools must be established in different regions and provinces across the country, so that it would be affordable and accessible to many more people, particularly in the rural and remote areas. This will result in the creation of a pool of workforces to supply the increasing demand of a semi-skilled and high-skilled labour market.

The main push factors of Cambodians migrating to work in Thailand are poverty, lack of employment opportunities, indebtedness and landlessness. The pull factors are wage gaps between Cambodia and Thailand and better working conditions. The majority of Cambodian migrant workers crossed the border by informal and social networks, often ending up in illegal migration. 

There is an increasing number of Cambodian women and children migrating to Thailand over the years. They are much more vulnerable to labour exploitation, human trafficking, and human right abuses than men are. 

Most Cambodian migrants work in construction, fishery, agriculture, and other labour intensive sectors. They concentrate in metropolitan areas such as Bangkok. 

Migration becomes one of the hot topics of bilateral relations, as well as regional cooperation in Southeast Asia. Without appropriately addressing the issue, it harms bilateral and multilateral cooperation. It is difficult to concretize the ASEAN community if there is no effective migration governance system and people-centred policy in place. 

In 2003, Cambodia and Thailand signed a bilateral Memorandum of Understanding (MOU) to facilitate proper procedures for employment, effective repatriation, and due protection of workers, and prevention of illegal migration. However, both governments failed to prevent illegal migration and human trafficking. There are around 200,000 undocumented Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand, which resulted in such deportation en mass. 

At the regional level, in the ASEAN Declaration on the Protection of the Rights of Migrant Workers adopted in 2007, the framework and responsibility of the sending and receiving states of migrant workers was provided. For the receiving states, they were obliged to “intensify efforts to protect the fundamental human rights, promote the welfare and uphold human dignity of migrant workers.”

The rights and dignity of the undocumented migrant workers are not legally protected under these two documents. However, regardless of immigration status, all migrants are entitled to basic human rights as stated in the Universal Declaration of Human Rights setting forth the basic civil, cultural, economic, political and social rights and fundamental freedoms that all human beings in every country should enjoy. 

Both bilateral and regional agreements on migrant workers should include rights protection for t he undocumented migrant workers, since it is important for the wellbeing and inclusiveness of society. It needs to acknowledge the social and economic presence of undocumented migrants and assist them to integrate with the local community.

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