Thousands of undocumented Cambodian migrants leaving Thailand

Since 28 June, 8,328 Cambodians have returned home. In Thailand, they could be fined up to US$ 3,000 or get five years in prison. Lack of money is the main factor pushing them to remain undocumented. Once home, returnees tend to stay or go back to Thailand without papers.

Phnom Penh (AsiaNews/Agencies) – Fearing Thai government sanctions, thousands of undocumented Cambodians have left for home of their own volition or forced in the past few weeks.

Under new labour legislation, approved at the end of June, undocumented foreign workers could be fined up to US$ 3,000 and get up to five years in prison. Employers could be fined up to US$ 23,500 per undocumented worker.

In total, 8,328 migrants have crossed the Thai-Cambodian border since the first spike on 28 June. Many have returned to Cambodia of their own will, but some on the instruction of their employers.

The exodus slowed the past week after the Thai government suspended enforcing fines until the end of the year.

Many Cambodians who seek work in Thailand to support themselves and their families are underage, and are especially at risk of exploitation, abuse and trafficking.

Often, they get their salary in a lump sum once a year, which means they have to borrow money from their employer to buy anything.

Such an arrangement leaves migrants open to a host of problems like disease through poor living and nutrition, trafficking and debt. Minors make up an estimated 10 to 15 per cent of the returning migrants.

Lack of money is the main factor that encourages migrants to remain undocumented, as many of them cannot afford the fees for a passport.

Most migrants take out loans, and this leads them to find work quickly on arrival and often to more debt when migration fails.

According to some NGOs, many of the people who return to Cambodia cannot afford the passport fees and are thus forced to choose between staying in Cambodia or go back to Thailand undocumented at their own risk.

While many returnees say their employers lent them money to come back legally, they add that the amount was either not enough to cover the costs or that they were told by their employers that passport fees would be deducted from their monthly salaries.

A recent announcement by the Labour Ministry clarified that the cost for a normal passport from the Ministry of Interior was 0, and 0 for an expedited one-day passport. In reality, migrants often pay much more.

To get more migrant workers documented, Labour Ministry spokesperson Heng Sour said last week that the Ministry would deliver travel documents in Thailand equivalent to passports beginning the first week of August.

The document, which along with other required paperwork would cost US$ 113, would be valid for five years and would be issued at offices in Thailand.

Those who are completely undocumented, he said, would need to register with the Thai Department of Employment during a two-week window ending on 7 August. They would then go through a “verification process” with representatives of the Cambodian government.

However, most workers wouldn’t be able to apply for the travel book available in Thailand because it requires a family book, an identity card and a birth certificate. Without these documents, most migrants would have no choice but to go back to Cambodia, and do so voluntarily.

Among those who do, many drive to checkpoints on the Thai side and then give themselves up to police, who take them to the Cambodian side of the border. At the same time, arrests and deportations continue apace but are dwarfed by the voluntary exodus.

Following the seeming return to normalcy, it remains to be seen how many undocumented workers will get papers before the end of the year and what will happen to those who are still undocumented when the harsh punishments come into effect in 2018.