Over the past year, 20-year-old Malai has been living in constant fear. She moves from construction site to construction site in Nonthaburi province, just north of the Thai capital Bangkok, as her assignments change. She came to the Kingdom from rural province in northwest Cambodia as a teenager with her family.

“I don’t have a proper employer, no legitimate documents, and I don’t know where I’ll go next. I am afraid I’ll get deported,” she says.

Thailand passed a royal decree mid-2017 to impose hefty fines on undocumented workers and their employers, as well as brokers. While the proposed fines for workers initially ranged up to almost USD3,000 and included five years’ imprisonment, this provision has been scrapped in an amendment.

Instead, workers now face fines of up to USD1,500 and their employers up to USD3,000 per worker. Repeat offenders face imprisonment of up to one year and a fine of up to USD6,000 per worker, as well as a ban from hiring migrant workers for three years.

The law was initially set to be enforced at the end of July last year. Following protests over the heavy penalties and the proposed speed of implementation by migrant rights advocates and employers, the government granted a grace period until December, and extended it until the end of June this year. During this grace period, undocumented migrants were expected to register with the authorities.

Undocumented Cambodians in Thailand

It technically costs USD100 to apply for a passport in Cambodia, but applicants often report having to pay more. Until this year, it was also only possible to apply for a passport in the capital, so Cambodians in rural provinces would have to find the means to travel to Phnom Penh. Although the government has said it will open new passport centres in other provinces, progress on this has been unclear thus far.

Malai couldn’t afford the lengthy and costly process to obtain a passport and migrated to Thailand undocumented when she was 10 years old. She’s not alone: rights groups estimate that about 750,000 undocumented Cambodian workers lived in Thailand before the crackdown began in July. According to Cambodia’s Ministry of Labour, more than a million Cambodians—both registered and unregistered—lived in Thailand last year. This makes Cambodians the second largest group of migrants in Thailand, after the Burmese.

But the numbers provided by the two different governments contradict each other: while Thai authorities reported that 350,840 Cambodian workers were properly registered by the end of June this year, Cambodian authorities had earlier claimed that all Cambodians, bar a few, had registered.

“Sometimes I live on the worksite with other people… We need to avoid the authorities. We’re very fearful”

For THB300 (about USD9) a day, Malai starts work at 7am and only finishes about 8pm. “Sometimes I live on the worksite with other people,” she says. “We need to avoid the authorities. We’re very fearful.”

The past year has revealed problems with the process of getting documented. First, migrants without passports had to go to the Cambodian embassy to apply for passports in Thailand itself—an exception the Cambodian government made for this situation. Then one would have to get Thai documents, but there were only a few centres at which you could register, requiring migrants to travel long distances. The centres were so overrun that some migrants, including children, told New Naratif that they had to sleep in the centres to wait their turn. Rights groups reported corruption in the foreign embassies and centres, making the process even more costly.

As a result, thousands of Cambodians, Burmese and Laotians chose to flee across the borders to return home, instead of remaining in Thailand at the risk of getting caught. Repatriation was not without difficulties: migrants complained about being extorted by the authorities on both sides of the border.

Not seeing any way to make a living in Cambodia, Malai has decided to stay in Thailand for now despite the risks.

She also doesn’t see any way to get documented. “I heard that I need to have a decent amount of money to obtain a passport, and I’m afraid the embassy officials will blame me, maybe deport me back to Cambodia,” she says. “I hope they won’t arrest me… I will try to stay as long as I can.”

This fear of arrests has been a reality for many Cambodians over the past month. When the deadline to register expired, Thailand launched a crackdown on irregular migrants, deporting at least a thousand Cambodians within a few days at the beginning of July.

Paying to become legal

Maryann Bylander, a professor at Lewis & Clark College and an expert on migration in the Global South, says the new laws triggered unintended consequences. “I’d say that the main impact of the new law is that workers are paying exorbitant amounts of money to become legal—often taking on debts in order to do so,” she tells New Naratif in an email.

A conversation Bylander had with a Burmese worker illustrates this issue. “The main impact of the new law is to reduce our savings, because every time we have to process a document we have to pay.  And the process changes frequently, so we pay frequently,” he told her.

Chonticha Tangworamongkon, a project manager at Human Rights and Development Foundation in Thailand, says costs associated with registering, or even renewing documents, means that many migrant workers borrow money from their employers. They then pay it off as they work. “This can be conducive to debt bondage, a form of human trafficking,” she points out.

“The main impact of the new law is that workers are paying exorbitant amounts of money to become legal—often taking on debts in order to do so”

According to the United Nations Special Rapporteur on Contemporary Slavery Urmila Bhoola’s 2016 report, debt bondage is one of the four practices similar to slavery or forms of servitude addressed in the UN’s Convention on the Abolition of Slavery and can be classified as forced labour, or even slavery.

“Migrant workers often become trapped in situations of bondage by borrowing money at exorbitant interest rates to pay recruitment fees or by taking an advance payment from intermediaries to secure work in the country of destination,” she writes. “Once migrants arrive in the country of destination they are often forced to work in harsh conditions to pay back debt they have accrued.”

In Thailand, the report states, many migrant workers from Cambodia, Laos, and Myanmar were “lured to work on fishing boats free of charge and once they start working are charged for the costs of recruitment and the travel expenses, with high interest rates.”

Is this fighting trafficking, or counter-productive?

In an effort to curb human trafficking, the Thai government has not only launched a campaign against undocumented migrants, but also embarked on stricter law enforcement against traffickers over the past year. These moves have pushed its status in the US State Department’s Trafficking in Persons 2018 report from Tier 2 Watchlist up to Tier 2.

“The government demonstrated increasing efforts by prosecuting and convicting more traffickers, and decreasing prosecution time for trafficking cases through the use of specialised anti-trafficking law enforcement divisions,” the report says.

But while more traffickers were convicted in 2017, the report states that fewer victims have been identified in the same period: the government identified 445 victims of trafficking in 2017, versus 824 in 2016. For labour trafficking, the difference is even starker: 119 were reported last year, compared to 489 in 2016.

This, the report writes, has raised concerns among NGOs and experts that victims were left “vulnerable to penalisation and re-trafficking.” Tougher enforcement has not necessarily translated to better protection of victims.

Construction workers, many of whom are migrants, walk to their worksite in Bangkok. Credit: Somphop Krittayaworagul / Shutterstock.com

Another drawback of the new law, says Bylander, are that some clauses actually make migrants more vulnerable. “In some cases, the law is also creating exactly what it seeks to eliminate,” she says.

She explains that the easiest way to finance passports and work visas is for employers to pay for them first, then confiscate the workers’ documents until the debt is paid. The practice of holding documents, she says, has “increased significantly” due to the new law.

Chonticha says that although the confiscation of documents is illegal under the decree, the stricter law enforcement has pushed more employers to breach this provision. “This is because the number of workers with documents [is] possibly far lower than the actual demand of workers for Thailand’s economy. So workers with proper documents are precious to the employers,” she says.

The only way left for employers to hire new migrant workers in a documented way would be to go through the Memorandum of Understanding process—which can take months and cost several hundred dollars through the use of brokers—between Cambodia and Thailand. This increases the employers’ fear of losing migrant workers, Chonticha says. Employers therefore rather confiscate documents and risk a fine than risk losing their employees and face a labour shortage.

Moreover, the new law requires workers to register under specific employers and jobs, making them more vulnerable to deportation should they perform other work than indicated.

And while the new law has put many hurdles in migrant workers’ way over the past year, Bylander says it’s not clear whether they’ve reaped any benefits: “While we might assume that when migrants gain legal status, their wages would increase, I haven’t seen any evidence that this is true.”

The lucky ones

Some migrants, however, have been luckier. 30-year-old Chheng Chhang has been working in a cake shop in Chonburi province since 2011. He’s been successfully registered, obtaining his documents in April with his employer’s help.

Like Malai, he doesn’t earn much: just THB250 per day (about USD7.50). He says the cost of food and accommodation has increased over this past year—but at least it’s still enough to pay off his family’s debts back home. And it’s better than back in Cambodia’s Kampong Cham, where he’d been a farmer. “I didn’t earn enough to survive,” he says. “It was very stressful. We did not eat enough.”

Although he hasn’t been directly affected by the crackdown, he’s seen its effects. “My friends [started] leaving as soon as they heard of the rumor of a crackdown,” he says. “Some of my extended [family was] arrested while they were crossing the border [to apply for documents in Cambodia]… Now they are traumatised; they have no interest to come back.”

Leng Len contributed reporting to this article.

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Leonie Kijewski

Leonie Kijewski is a German freelance reporter based in Cambodia. In her reporting she focuses on the intersection of human rights, social justice, and politics.