KAMRIENG, Battambang – Migrant workers from different parts of Thailand are trekking back in groups of five and 10 or even just as one to reach their motherland just armed with whatever belongings they can carry.
The scorching heat, hunger and thirst does not seemed to deter their spirit of walking through the night at times for hours, stumbling and getting bruised in the process, all the time fearful of stepping on landmines, and bandits and wild animals to reach a four-metre wide and one metre deep stream between the Chan Kiri corridor and Doung Border, Kamrieng district, Battambang province.
Their objective – to cross the stream into Cambodian territory and safety from what they feel is a hopeless and dangerous situation in Thailand, caused by unemployment, job losses and a spiraling COVID-19 pandemic in Thailand.
Many of them cross the illegal checkpoints without valid documents and prior to the exodus, would have been detained and deported by Thai authorities prior to the spike in the pandemic in mid-December.
However, now, they are encouraged by the same Thai security forces when they stumble upon them, who also offer them directions, drinking water and some food.
Several migrant workers who arrived at the Kamrieng and the Sampov Loun quarantine centres said that though they face an uncertain future in Cambodia, the risk of crossing back was worth it as the situation in Thailand had become volatile as Thais had blamed other migrant workers, especially from Myanmar for the sudden surge of COVID-19 there.
“We didn’t want to be caught in the rising sentiments of hatred and anger which put not only us, but all other migrant workers at risk of violence in Thailand,” a group of migrant workers who crossed the border on Sunday morning said, while awaiting their essentials kit and swab tests for the deadly virus.
“If we have a choice and when the employment situation in Thailand becomes better, the COVID-19 situation gets under control, we will return to Thailand. However, this time the risks will be higher as the Thai security forces may not be that welcoming or accommodating,” the workers, two females and three males said, declining to be identified.
They added that they were aware of the mandatory 14- day quarantine before they are allowed to return home and face their family members who will not be receiving monthly financial support from them any longer, at least temporarily.
According to a World Bank report released in November, about 120,000 Cambodian migrant workers are said to have returned from Thailand. This is more than 10 percent of all Cambodian workers in that country. It said there are more than a million Cambodian workers in Thailand who are mostly in low‐skilled occupations. Many of them are undocumented.
Last year, 1.2 million Cambodian workers employed in Thailand, South Korea, Japan, Singapore, Hong Kong, Malaysia and Saudi Arabia sent home some $2.8 billion in remittances, according to figures from the Ministry of Labour and Vocational Training.
COVID-19 has now put a damper on these inward remittances, impacting families and the national economy.