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Legal immigration has downside, too: report

Cambodian migrants are transported across the Thai-Cambodian border by Thai authorities to the town of Poipet in June of 2014.
Cambodian migrants are transported across the Thai-Cambodian border by Thai authorities to the town of Poipet in June of 2014. Hong Menea

Legal immigration has downside, too: report

A new report in the journal Migration Studies casts doubt on whether legal emigration is a boon for development in Cambodia, and whether it benefits the Kingdom’s workers.

Experts have long noted that emigration tends to increase as a country develops. In the case of Cambodia, migration shot up over the past decade alongside economic growth. An estimated 1 million Cambodians were based overseas in 2013, the majority in Thailand.

Meanwhile, there is considerable optimism that overseas migration helps boost development and reduce poverty, the study’s author notes. Along with this optimism is an assumption that legal migration is always preferable.

But research by Maryann Bylander, of Lewis and Clark University, shows that legal migration is usually only available to workers who are already better off in relative terms, a fact that minimises migration’s ability to reduce poverty.

Increasing barriers to irregular migration might make it difficult for poor Cambodians to seek opportunities, Bylander determined.

“Scholars and policy-makers who stress the importance of creating opportunities for regular, legal, migration may be advocating for opportunities that are inherently less accessible to those currently engaging in migration,” she wrote. “Increased moves to manage/regulate migration may unwittingly constrain mobility options for the poor.”

After examining data on workers moving to Thailand and Malaysia, Bylander noted that Cambodians migrating to Thailand are often from marginalised households, and usually emigrate without documents. Meanwhile, those heading to Malaysia generally have the economic and social capital to pay recruiters, and opt to obtain the necessary permits.

While the latter may seem preferable, that isn’t always the case, Bylander writes. For example, legal migration isn’t always safer. Legal status can sometimes bind workers to unscrupulous employers, leaving them vulnerable to abuse.

In Malaysia, where the majority of Cambodian migrants are women employed as domestic workers, numerous cases of abuse and exploitation have been documented.

But according to William Conklin, of NGO Solidarity Center, both irregular and regular migrants face a surfeit of obstacles. “To be able to afford to be sent to Malaysia requires money; you need to pay recruiters.

“So those workers are accruing debt,” he noted. “But if they are working in a construction site in Thailand, are . . . international standards being adhered to? In both countries, workers are at risk.”

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