Migrant Workers Return Home Amid Covid-19 Fears, Border Closures

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Authorities at the O’Smach International Border Checkpoint check temperatures of Cambodian workers returning from Thailand, in a photograph posted to the Immigration Department’s Facebook page on March 23, 2020.

Thousands of migrant workers from Thailand and Vietnam returned to Cambodia in the last week, as governments closed borders in an effort to limit the spread of Covid-19.

The Cambodian consulate in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province said in a statement on Sunday that the Thai government ordered the closure of the country’s border checkpoint adjacent to Poipet from Monday until April 5.

Another five Thai provinces closed their borders with Cambodia until further notice, the Cambodian consulate said. 

Som Chankea, Banteay Meanchey provincial coordinator for human rights group Adhoc, estimated that thousands of Cambodian migrants had streamed across the border from Thailand at the Poipet checkpoint on Sunday.

“We have seen Cambodian people flooded back from Thailand. Some brought along their things, looking like people who escaped from war,” Chankea told VOD. “We saw authorities checking their temperatures but we’re not sure whether they took samples for testing or not.”

Preah Sdech district authorities in Prey Veng province, which borders Vietnam, reported that 1,882 migrant workers had returned home across 11 communes as of Monday. 

Cambodia’s neighbors — Vietnam, Laos and Thailand — have all closed multiple border checkpoints with Cambodia in an attempt to prevent the spread of the virus. 

Vietnam stopped issuing new entry visas to all foreign nationals last week, Vietnamese state media reported. The country also ordered all travelers coming from the U.S., Europe and Southeast Asian nations to be quarantined for 14 days upon arrival. 

Laos suspended tourist visas for at least 30 days, Chinese state media reported last week.

Cambodia’s confirmed Covid-19 cases climbed to 87 in the past week, with three new cases announced by the Health Ministry on Monday. Two foreign nationals who had tested positive for the virus in Cambodia have recovered and left hospital quarantine.

As of Monday evening, Thailand has reported 721 infections and Vietnam has confirmed 122, according to data from the U.S., E.U., China and World Health Organization (WHO) compiled by Johns Hopkins University. Laos has yet to report a single case.

Sok Nan, a 25-year-old from Takeo province who worked in a restaurant near Bangkok, told VOD in a message that the restaurant owner told him to take a month-long break for Khmer New Year due to concerns about Covid-19.

Nan said police at the Poipet border checkpoint checked his temperature before he crossed into Cambodia. 

“Police checked and found my temperature is 36 degrees. I just saw that they posted warnings about the virus at the border gate and asked us to wash our hands,” he said.

The Health Ministry said on Sunday that workers returning from Thailand should self-isolate for 14 days, and ordered them to see doctors or local health officers immediately if they started showing Covid-19 symptoms, which include fever, coughing and shortness of breath.

Members of civil society, however, expressed concerns that potentially infected migrant workers might not receive the ministry’s messages before they have had opportunities to pass the disease to others as they travel and return to their hometowns. 

“Our people who work in Thailand are from the countryside, and we are worried about their behavior and beliefs, and whether they would truly self-isolate,” said San Chey, executive director of the Affiliated Network for Social Accountability Cambodia.

“As a habit, those returning from Thailand tend to gather and have drinks. A large portion of residents in rural areas do not understand the protection measures yet,” according to Chey.

More than 2 million Cambodian migrants are estimated to be working in Thailand, with some 20 percent undocumented, according to labor rights group Central.

Moeun Tola, Central’s director, said that authorities needed to establish specific measures, beyond just appealing to workers, and proactively ensure compliance with recommended preventative health measures.

“Authorities should check their health and take action and provide enough supplies to keep them in isolation for 14 days,” Tola said.

Returning migrant workers “need help to secure food, and local authorities also have to cooperate to educate them [about self-isolation],” he added.

(Translated and edited from the original article on VOD Khmer)

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