The Cambodian government closed all unofficial border checkpoints in Banteay Meanchey and Battambang in an apparent response to Thailand’s laws imposing stricter punishments on migrant workers.
Phlon Dara, Banteay Meanchey provincial military chief, yesterday said that his province had closed 43 checkpoints on Saturday for an indefinite time period, following an order by the Interior Ministry on Friday.
“Because Thailand has a new law to crack down on illegal migrant workers, they have to shut down the small checkpoints to stop them from illegally migrating to Thailand,” he said.
Thailand recently passed a law imposing hefty fines on irregular migrant workers, their brokers, and their employers. Migrants can also face imprisonment. After a backlash by both employers and migrant advocates, the Thai government temporarily suspended the implementation.
“There are more than 500 people who tried to go to Thailand . . . but we stopped them,” Dara said, adding that the main international checkpoints remained active.
Sar Thet, Battambang provincial police chief, said they had closed “20 to 30 small illegal checkpoints”.
Migration researcher Laurie Parsons in an email yesterday called the move “political showmanship”. Closing the border, he said, “is probably an effort to demonstrate equal commitment to cracking down on illegal border activity; security theatre, if you like”.
The closures, he said, could harm people’s incomes, but did little to quell smuggling and irregular migration.
“Certainly, they form key arteries of everyday commerce, so it will put significant pressure on the livelihoods of ordinary people on both sides of the border,” he said.
He said Cambodia’s reaction should be seen in the broader context of border security. He added that the Thai and Cambodian governments held a summit last December “about gaining control of the border” in response to smuggling and border shootings. “It is all interconnected,” he said.
And while Cambodia restricted migration to Thailand, hundreds of migrants continued returning to Cambodia – both voluntarily and involuntarily – in response to the new law.
According to Poipet police officer Sin Namyong, almost 400 workers crossed back into Cambodia as of yesterday afternoon, and 736 returned on Sunday. The International Organization for Migration says the typical number of Cambodians returning in a given day is between 100 and 200.
IOM spokesman Troy Dooley said many migrants took deportations as an opportunity to get home. “For one, they decided to return because they don’t have the documents, or two, their employers asked them to return.”
Clarifying uncertainties about the suspension of the royal decree, Kamontit Bueatsong, an official at Thailand’s Employment Ministry, said the implementation would be delayed for 120 days starting retroactively on June 23.
She added that the stricter punishments laid out in the decree would not come into effect, but that the decree itself did not deal with deportations.
“After 120 days we will use the new law, until then we will only deport them,” she said.
Nonetheless, Khun Tharo, project coordinator of Building Workers International, said many irregular Cambodian migrants in the Thai construction industry were “really concerned” about the decree.
“They try to escape . . . and don’t even talk to us [unionists], as they’re worried the Thai police can fine them,” he said.
Migrant worker Khun Sany said yesterday that she left because of the decree, and will obtain a passport in Phnom Penh. She said she wanted to return to Thailand on Monday.
“I have a week to get the legal document, as my employer let me come back to make legal documents,” she said.
“I previously decided to work undocumented because I have to spend from $600 to $700 to be legal,” she said, and added that she had to pay more for an expedited passport because of her time constraints.