George Nickels: Cambodia's Mass Exodus
©2023 George Nickels
Following the deal Cambodia made with Australia in September of 2014 to receive 1,100 asylum seekers, the corrupt constitutional monarchy received $35 million in “development aid,” in full knowledge of its already swelling refugee crisis. Called by some “a cruel deal,” it was not unlike the agreement that was made between Australia and the small island nation of Nauru, where refugees were temporarily detained only months before for the same purpose. Amnesty International criticized Australia for shirking its commitment to the 1951 Convention of Refugees. Indeed, Cambodia has become a veritable human dumping ground for-profit and foreshadowed the Syrian refugee crisis in 2015 a year later.
How Australia handed these refugees off was not unlike the way Cambodia, itself, has previously treated refugees from other countries, including Vietnam and North Korea. For example, in 2009, Cambodia was pledged $1 billion by China in investments for the return of 20 dissident Uighur ethnic minority asylum seekers for their alleged involvement in political riots.
Scott Morrison, the Minister for Immigration and Border Protection in Australia had told journalists that the deal would benefit everyone. On the other hand, David Manne of Australia's Refugees and Immigration Legal Center had told the Sydney Morning Herald that Cambodia “is barely able to look after the needs and rights of its own people, let alone those of refugees.” Meanwhile, there is a “Stop the boats” attitude currently gaining popularity in Australia (referring to the arrival of "boat people" on its shores). Its obvious influence on politicians hungry to maintain popular political support is considerable.
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All Images © 2023 George Nickels
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This was profoundly unsettling in light of the recent mass exodus of Cambodian refugees from Thailand in the summer of 2014, which was caused when rumors began to circulate that the ruling military junta was cracking down on illegal migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar, Laos, and other countries. Cambodians working illegally in Thailand had mostly filled undesirable low-paying jobs that Thais often reject—in agriculture, fishing, seafood processing, unskilled labor, and domestic work.
But the threat of arrest, especially in light of Thailand's notoriously squalid detention lockups, was not to be dismissed lightly. Human Rights Watch recently published a 67-page report entitled, “Two Years With No Moon,” accusing Thailand's detention policies of not only being in violation of international law, but risking children's rights, health, and well-being, and even imperiling their growth.
Fear of house-to-house searches, the threat of arrest, or even being shot and killed by the police were very real concerns for the migrants while they resided in Thailand. Altogether, the relationship between Thailand and Cambodia has been politically tense over the last few years, resulting not only from various territorial disputes, including the conflict over the Preah Vihear Temple area but also from the burning of the Thai embassy in Phnom Penh by rioters in 2003.
The International Organization of Migration (IOM), a UN-affiliated intergovernmental group, reported upwards of 246,000 Cambodian migrants fled Thailand this past summer. This is in a country where a gathering of more than five people can be manipulated by the authorities into being designated a protest, which is considered illegal. IOM estimates that upwards of 380,000 migrant children of different nationalities are still living in Thailand. Daily life for illegal workers is an anxiety-inducing one that forces them to stay indoors and out of sight whenever they are not working. Curfews are common. No one is quite sure where the rumor of the crackdown originated; however, it caused many illegal workers lacking funds to turn themselves in to Thai authorities, in the hope of being returned home at least somewhat safely.
Cambodia has a deplorable human rights record and is infamous for using refugees as bargaining chips in bids for foreign aid. And like many struggling third-world nations, Cambodia is easy prey for huge multinationals. Most recently, Toll Holdings Limited, an Australian company, recently agreed to a joint-venture 30-year deal with the Cambodian government to restore their defunct railway system that has been in a state of disrepair since 2009. Toll received $84 million from the Asian Development Bank, none of which will trickle down to the people living there, of course. Approximately 3,600 families living in makeshift shanties along the tracks have been driven away from the rail lines that run between Phnom Penh and Poipet on the Thai border, to make way for new construction. Local bamboo drivers, who had made improvised train cars out of bamboo and salvaged engines, have been driven out of business.
Poipet, once a major railroad terminus, has been a transit point for returning Cambodians, many of whom rushed to leave Thailand without even claiming their final paychecks. What awaited them was not very promising. Many were unsure if their homes would still be there upon their return. Land grabs by various companies have become all too common. And as the companies have brazenly expropriated land from farmers and communities, land thefts have been made all too easy because all property records had been destroyed decades ago when the Khmer Rouge seized power.
Around the world, globalization continues to take its toll. As in Central America, and now in Syria, of course, indigenous peoples throughout South East Asia have been forced to become refugees, as they attempt to flee their home countries which have been ravaged and exploited by decades of colonialism, war, and, now, the neoliberal expansionist policies of the World Bank, the IMF and a derivatives-driven global market. Airport expansion projects and rapid luxury apartment developments cannot possibly provide the required sustaining economies to include millions of people displaced from villages, farms, and towns.
For now, many Cambodian migrants are still caught between the dangerous and unrewarding prospect of working and living illegally in a junta-run foreign country that does not even pay well—usually 200-300 bahts per day (the equivalent of $6-9 US)—and trying to make the best of their extremely corrupt home nation where there is little hope of finding work.
Article ©2023 James Williamson
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George Nickels is a freelance photojournalist, covering social conflict and humanitarian issues across Asia. His in-depth photography and editorial work provide an often unreported aspect of current affairs and news.
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All Photographs ©2023 George Nickels