Thousands of Cambodian migrant laborers are returning home from Thailand following a second outbreak of the deadly virus there over the past week, and aid groups are warning of food shortages among long jobless workers, the migrants and supporters told RFA.
From April to mid-December, Thailand was reporting daily confirmed cases in the single and low double digits. But in late December, daily totals spiked into the mid to high hundreds, reaching a high of 844 on Monday according to WHO statistics.
Thailand, the largest economy of continental Southeast Asia, has been a major employer of migrant workers from neighboring countries such as Cambodia, and Myanmar, hosting some 650,000 Cambodians, and several million Myanmar citizens.
The lockdown to fight the coronavirus suddenly left many workers unemployed, and stranded with not enough money to return to their home countries.
In Cambodia, civil society groups are urging the government to step in and support migrants so that the migrants are not forced to return home and can remain in Thailand.
Sor Piseth, a grocery store worker from Cambodia’s western Pursat province, told RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday that his family stopped working about 10 days ago and have remained indoors at their home in Pattaya, about a two-hour drive from Bangkok.
“Thailand has restricted us from going to work, but even if I could go, I could get infected. I am worried that we will starve, but if I get infected it would be even more serious,” said Sor Piseth.
“Many Cambodian workers are infected with the disease, but our concern is that there is no income, no money to repay the bank in Cambodia, and no money to eat every day,” he said.
Rak Dalin, a worker in Chachoengsao province, to the east of Bangkok, told RFA her employer has for the past four days suspended operations.
The four members of her family want to return to Cambodia because they have run out of money to buy food and pay rent, and they are concerned about their health situation if they stay put.
“We are afraid of getting infected, so we raised 500 baht [U.S. $16.72] with our friends to buy rice, and we go fishing in the rice fields and eat what we catch because we have no other choice.” she said.
“If COVID-19 cases continue to rise, then we cannot resist and must go back to Cambodia, but right now we have no money to go home. There is no money,” said Rak Dalin.
Another worker, who asked for anonymity told RFA that many of his fellow casino workers returned to Cambodia after Thai authorities in late December confirmed 19 cases of the virus inside casinos in Rayong and Chonburi provinces, in the eastern part of the country.
The worker said his boss fired all the Cambodian staff and most returned to Cambodia, and some were in quarantine in Cambodia’s Battambang province.
RFA attempted to contact the Cambodian Ministry of Labor spokesman Heng Sour and officials at the Cambodian embassy in Bangkok for comment but were unsuccessful.
With so many Cambodian workers in a dire situation in a neighboring country, Phnom Penh should offer monetary support to tide them over, according to Yin Mengly, the Battambang coordinating officer for the local ADHOC NGO.
“I am so worried, so we have appealed to the workers, if they cannot remain in Thailand and have already fled to Cambodia, they should report to the authorities and participate in quarantine,” he said.
He also called on the government to pay more attention to the returning workers, as well as the quarantine centers, and support their livelihood while they are in quarantine.
A 2019 report by the International Organization for Migration (IOM) estimated there were about 650,000 Cambodian migrants in Thailand at that time, and said they remit an average of 39,312 baht ($1,228) per year, some as the sole means of support for their family members in Cambodia.
From the end of December to Jan. 5, about 6,000 Cambodian migrants returned from Thailand. Cambodia’s Ministry of Health identified among them 17 coronavirus infectees.
Myanmar migrants protest
In coastal Samuk Sakhon province near the capital, the epicenter of Thailand’s second wave, migrant workers from Myanmar protested when Thai authorities returned to the market more than 20 who had tested positive but had not been admitted to hospitals for treatment
At the beginning of the outbreak, Thailand’s Prime Minister Prayut Chan-o-cha and health officials said that foreign workers who entered the country illegally were the likely source of a record outbreak of COVID-19 detected at Thailand’s largest fresh seafood market complex, where hundreds of migrants from Myanmar have been infected.
Several migrants at that time told RFA that they had become infected from their employers and coworkers.
The market has been on lockdown since Dec. 21, after a Thai shrimp vendor tested positive that day.
The migrant workers are protesting because the authorities have seemingly disregarded public health, returning the workers to the market without treating them, according to the Aid Alliance Committee (AAC), a humanitarian group that assists migrants in Thailand from Myanmar.
“The Thai authorities returned over 20 patients with red bracelets, which is a label for infected people, to the market by night in Thai military vehicles,” Ye Min from AAC told RFA’s Myanmar Service.
“They were taken by the authorities that evening that evening, but when they returned, they said the COVID-treatment center in the hospital cannot accept them. They are returning these patients to the compound, still under lockdown. Naturally, the workers in the compound are upset and are staging protests,” Ye Min said.
The migrant workers also said that Thai authorities tested more than 2,000 of them since the lockdown began but did not release test results of those who tested positive.
Ye Min said at least 700 from this group tested positive.
“There are mothers and pregnant women among the people they returned. Many people from the compound are upset that these patients were rejected,” Thar Gi, a migrant worker in the market told RFA.
“They had been labeled as positive and taken away, and now they have already been sent back. The people were arguing about this failure and the crowd just grew. It was not a mob, but there was a lot of outcry from the people,” Thar Gi said.
RFA attempted to contact the labor attaché’s office at Myanmar’s embassy in Bangkok but did not receive a reply.
The embassy Monday announced that Labor Attaché Thurein Linn traveled to the shrimp market to meet with migrant workers and negotiate on their behalf with Thai authorities.
As of Tuesday, Thailand has confirmed 8,966 total cases and 65 deaths.
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