Cambodia’s government on Monday closed all checkpoints along its border with Thailand to anyone other than Cambodian migrant workers returning home from the neighboring country, drawing criticism from residents who say their livelihoods depend on traveling between the two nations.
The move follows a royal decree passed by Thailand at the end of last month which imposed jail terms of up to five years and hefty fines on illegal workers in the country.
The decree was suspended for 120 days on June 30 after facing a backlash from employers and migrant advocates, but thousands of Cambodians are still being deported, including nearly 1,000 last week alone, according to a report by the Phnom Penh Post.
On Monday, Cambodia indefinitely closed all checkpoints along the border with its western neighbor to anyone who is not a Cambodian migrant working returning from Thailand, citing a need to curb unlawful crossings.
Roath Veasna, an official at the Tumnup Dach border checkpoint in Au Bey Choan commune, in Battambang province’s Au Chrov district, told RFA’s Khmer Service that the order was initially given on July 1, but fully implemented Monday, and aimed at preventing illegal workers from crossing into Thailand in search of jobs.
“Only workers who are returning from Thailand will be allowed to cross into Cambodia,” he said.
“No one from Cambodia is allowed to cross into Thailand—even to buy commodities in Thai markets and vice versa.”
While Cambodia’s government claims the move will stymie illegal migration, people who live along the border and civil society groups told RFA that a prolonged closure of the checkpoints will damage the livelihoods of local residents.
A villager from Au Bey Choan commune named Loeum No said that the effect of the border closure has yet to be seen and urged the government to rescind the ban on crossings as soon as possible.
“I would like the border crossing to be re-opened soon—it can’t be closed for too long,” he said.
“When all the border crossings are closed, our lives are severely impacted. We need to cross the border into Thailand to buy commodities.”
Sum Chankea, coordinator for the rights group ADHOC in neighboring Banteay Meanchey province, echoed Loeum No’s concerns about how a prolonged border closure could affect local residents.
“Many Cambodians earn a living by going to work in Thailand and they should be allowed to return home after their day’s labor,” he said.
“The authorities should be focusing their actions against those who illegally bring workers to Thailand,” he said.
The Phnom Penh Post cited Dy The Hoya, of labor rights group Central, as saying that Cambodia’s government should pressure Thailand to grant more time to adjust regulations and regulate recruitment agencies better.
According to the report, Cambodia’s Labour Ministry issued a letter on Friday asking the Information Ministry to ban recruitment agencies’ advertisements, which it said “usually deceive our residents … to convince them to go to work in Thailand.”
Thailand has been criticized for its treatment of migrant workers who are often at the mercy of unscrupulous employers and labor brokers.
“Thailand is a source, destination, and transit country for men, women, and children subjected to forced labor and sex trafficking,” the U.S. State Department wrote in its 2017 Trafficking in Persons Report.
While migrant workers are at risk, they are still drawn to the country as Thailand is a wealthy nation compared to its neighbors.
Human traffickers charge Cambodians as much as U.S. $100 per person to illegally transport them across the border from the northwestern part of the country, human rights groups told RFA last year.
Workers, who do not have passports, pay 300,000 to 400,000 riel (U.S. $75 to $100) each to help them cross over the border in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces.
Thailand’s economy grew at an average annual rate of 7.5 percent in the late 1980s and early 1990s, creating millions of jobs that helped pull millions of people out of poverty, according to the World Bank, but that growth has slowed in recent years.
According to the Office of the Social and Economic Development Board, workers from Myanmar, Cambodia, Laos, Vietnam, China and ethnic minorities from Southeast Asian countries, have cut into businesses reserved for Thais.
In September, an official from Banteay Meanchey province told RFA that Thai authorities were cracking down on illegal immigrants and sending thousands of migrant workers back to Cambodia and Vietnam each day, with more than 4,000 Cambodian workers deported during August alone.
A crackdown by Thailand’s military regime on undocumented migrant workers in 2014 saw tens of thousands of Cambodian migrant workers flee from Thailand to Cambodia amid fears over government measures.
Reported by Hour Hum for RFA’s Khmer Service. Translated by Nareth Muong. Written in English by Joshua Lipes.