In some villages near the Thai border, over half the residents have migrated for work. For those left behind, it’s getting harder and harder to cope.
Lao Roun isn’t sure when she’ll see her husband again.
Two months ago, he left their home and crossed over the border into Thailand to try to find work on a construction site. But only three days after his arrival, he was arrested for trying to work without the correct documentation, and has been doing time in a Thai prison ever since.
In the small village of Moung Thbon, which sits at the intersection of western Siem Reap and Banteay Meanchey provinces, 100 kilometres from the Thai border, Ruon is now responsible for taking care of her mother, running the small family business, tending their rice fields and looking after their pigs. She’s also caring for her sister’s two young sons – like her husband, Ruon’s sister is in Thailand.
“It’s very difficult without my husband,” Roun said. “Sometimes when I am tired, I get really angry with the children.”
Ruon is not alone. According to local estimates, almost all the women left in Moung Thbon are currently looking after someone else’s children. Where Ruon differs is that, at 37, she is significantly younger than the other women in the village, where the age profile swings from juvenile to elderly with scarcely a pause in the middle.
A missing demographic
In late June 2014, the Thai government opened a registration window for foreign workers, following a mass exodus earlier in the month when fears were raised that the new military junta would clamp down on undocumented workers. In the period between June and October 2014, almost 700,000 Cambodian workers registered under the scheme along with another 42,000 dependants.
Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap provinces were administered by Thailand for more than 100 years until 1907, and migration across the border remains common.
Over the past five years, well over half the villagers in Moung Thbon have sought work across the border.
“There are 164 families in the village,” said commune councillor Tin Kimsun. “But 100 of those are always going backwards and forwards to Thailand.”
The 164 families counted by Kimsun include 15 families – both parents and children – that no one has seen or heard of since they left for Thailand five years ago.
No one can say for sure that these missing families are safe. The risks associated with travelling to Thailand include imprisonment, exploitation, cheating by brokers who say they can secure the correct papers, and trafficking into sex work for women or fishing boats for men.
Villagers are vaguely aware of the dangers. But for a community without prospects, Thailand remains a tempting proposition. From Moung Thbon, the border with Thailand may be twice as far away as booming Siem Reap, but the salaries on the other side are also twice, sometimes three times, as high.
Walking through the village, it’s easy to see where that money has gone. Large houses with beautifully tiled roofs are on almost every corner. The gates on most of them are barred though, a sign that the owner is away in Thailand.
According to Kim Khemara, a social worker for Siem Reap-based NGO Sala Baï, when you go into these houses, you often find that there is no furniture inside. To build a big house is important. What the neighbours cannot see is less so.
“If people stay here, there is nothing for them to do. We can produce enough rice to eat, but after that there is nothing,” said commune councillor Kimsun.
Villages left behind The Italian NGO GVC is currently trying to help people in 45 villages across Battambang, Banteay Meanchey and Siem Reap to share information and experiences through an EU-funded program, MIGRA-SAFE, which aims to promote safe labour migration for vulnerable Cambodians.
While undertaking research in the provinces, including in Moung Thbon and Chan Leas Dai villages, they discovered the extent to which labour migration was not only putting migrant workers at risk, but also affecting the villages left behind.
“As people started to get more comfortable talking to us, we found out that there were problems in the villages, too, when people left,” said Laura Toscani, a program officer for GVC.
“For example, we kept hearing grandparents complaining that they can’t control the children they are left behind to look after and raise, and that they are relieved when they are finally old enough to go to Thailand too.”
The children in the village are cagey and sit among their grandmothers in silence while the women describe the challenges of raising children a second time around.
“I’m very tired now,” said 63-year-old Pen Yen, who is looking after three grandchildren belonging to two of her three sons who are all in Thailand.
“But there is a lot more work to do – more washing, shopping, cooking and cleaning. Sometimes the children are sad, and we don’t know what to do. They don’t want to do anything, they won’t even eat.
“When we were mothers the first time, we were young and strong, and had a lot of energy. It was easier, even though we all had nine or 10 children.”
According to the grandmothers, it is hard to force the children to go to school when they don’t want to, and they can’t keep an eye on them during the day either.
They worry about them drowning in the rice fields, taking drugs or driving recklessly on the roads on new motos bought with their parents’ remittances.
In nearby Chan Leas Dai village, the prognosis was still more extreme: school simply wasn’t worth the trouble.
“Even if they finish school, they can’t get a job here. They still have to go to Thailand,” explained commune councillor Chhean Chhit.
According to Laura Toscani from GVC, many families have compounded this apparent lack of prospects by taking their children with them when they migrate.
“We hear about children as young as seven or eight crossing the border at night, terrified that they’re going to be found. If they need to, they have to urinate or vomit where they’re standing,” she said.
In Thailand, the children do not attend school but sit at their parents’ workplace all day waiting for them to finish. If they do return to Cambodia, re-insertion into school is a challenge.
“There are two boys in my class who were in Thailand with their parents,” explains 13-year-old Chheoun Simen, who goes to school in Moung Thbon village. “But they don’t understand the classes anymore. So they stop trying.”
Fears of fragmentation In Chan Leas Dai village, 10 kilometres away from Moung Thbon, a group of grandmothers estimated that 90 per cent of the working-age adults from the village were currently in Thailand.
One person described how it was hard to conduct ceremonies such as funerals when there was no one to attend them.
However, it soon became apparent that the community was more concerned about families breaking apart under the stress of migration, as normal social and legal constraints seem to become less applicable.
“When it happens, the husband doesn’t say anything because there is no way to complain to police or lawyers. In Cambodia, we have the law. But the law in Thailand is not the same.”
When asked, the group conceded that husbands also did the same thing.
Social worker Kim Khemara, who has just spent three months touring 14 provinces interviewing candidates for this year’s student intake at his NGO, raised another concern.
“The older people are not able to watch the children and protect them from sexual violence. Young girls are raped, and no one can stop it. I see this happening a lot,” he said.
Reviewing the situation as a whole, Khemara said he saw no hope for any imminent changes.
“People say they have no choice but to go to Thailand. They have no land and no job,” he explained.
“But when they go, things fall apart. It is hard because Cambodians are very family-oriented and will work so hard to keep it together.
“But when they go outside, the family breaks more easily. Then the grandparents are left with the children, and there is no income anymore either.”
For those children left behind in half-deserted villages, the powerful pull of Thailand becomes an inevitability, and the path is set for them to follow in their parents’ footsteps.
“I don’t know how it can stop,” said Khemara. “I think it will happen for 20 years or more.”