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IRREGULAR MIGRATION FROM CAMBODIA Characteristics, Challenges and Regulary Approach




Vutha HING , Pide LUN, and Dalis PHANN


The study examines the characteristics, root causes and challenges of irregular migration from Cambodia and then discusses the regulatory approaches and policy options to manage it. It employed mixed approaches, including a survey of 507 households in six high-migration villages, focus group discussions with returned and intending migrant workers and in-depth interviews with government officers, migration experts and local community chiefs.

Cross-border labour migration in Cambodia has evolved markedly over the last decade, from refugees during the 1980s and 1990s caused by civil war and political instability to a process that has considerable significance for the national economy and household livelihoods. This recent development makes the country a latecomer in management and administration of labour emigration, with policy and institutional frameworks that are relatively ineffective and weak. Labour migration policy was formulated very recently and remains at a nascent stage, lacking coherence. Regulation has been sporadic and limited, without comprehensive coverage. A lack of clear responsibilities and coordination and shortages of resources and capacity are common in institutions responsible for managing labour migration.

Irregular migration, which is defined as illegal movement to work in another country or movement without authorisation to work, has been the most popular form among Cambodian workers seeking jobs abroad. This method is widely regarded as relatively secure, convenient and cheap: there are no waiting time, required documents or complicated recruitment procedures. Informal recruitment can be divided into two categories. The first is short-distance migration along the Cambodian-Thai border. The jobs are usually agricultural, which migrants learn about from pioneer migrant relatives, friends or villagers. These pioneers facilitate job placement and form networks linking the primarily rural households and the destinations in Thailand. The cost of migration ranges from USD3.00 to USD5.50. The second category is long-distance migration to Thailand or Malaysia to work on fishing boats or as construction or factory workers. In most cases, migrants travel in small groups with a broker who escorts them to the workplace. Migrants have to pay a facilitation fee of USD100–200 in advance.

The causes of irregular migration are many, ranging from chronic poverty, lack of employment and economic hardship in community of origin to restrictive immigration policies in labour-receiving countries and lengthy, complex and expensive legal recruitment. The predominant factor is inability to afford the cost of legal recruitment. Most irregular migrant families have a lower economic status than regular migrants and live below the poverty line. While legal recruitment is expensive (USD700 to Thailand) and slow, informal recruitment takes only a few days and requires no or few documents.

Cambodian irregular migrants are increasing. Some of them face abusive and exploitative situations, including sexual and physical harassment, debt bondage and threats of denunciation to the authorities, without access to legal protection. Some are also victims of human trafficking. According to UNIAP (2010), every year thousands of Cambodians are trafficked to Thailand. Men are often trafficked to work on fishing boats or as construction workers in harsh conditions. Women are trafficked to the entertainment industry, including prostitution.

Why do states need policy on irregular migration? International migration, particularly
irregular migration, is increasingly a major economic, social, political and security
concern for a number of countries in the Asia-Pacific region (Bangkok Declaration).
Irregular migration is a protection problem because many irregular migrants encounter
abuse and exploitation with very limited or no social and legal protection. Irregular
migration is also a management problem in both sending and receiving countries. Given
the nature of migration in which people go to work in a host country without the legal
documents required by that country, it is hard to monitor and provide social protection
and necessary support services.

How should states deal with irregular migration? There is an international consensus that
irregular migration needs to be addressed in a holistic and comprehensive manner by
looking at its causes, responding to its effects and improving international cooperation.
i. Address the causes of irregular migration: Extreme poverty and lack of employment
opportunities, high costs of legal migration, malpractice by some private employment
agencies and activities of traffickers all push Cambodian workers to migrate irregularly.
Interventions that address these push factors would reduce informal migration.
a. Strengthen the development of communities of origin: Although there is not
yet firm empirical evidence on the relationship between community development
and migration, development might diminish migration by helping to overcome
the reasons for irregular migration and make migration a free, positive and legal
choice. Possible priority measures include increasing agricultural assistance;
improvement of rural infrastructure; increasing access to natural resources and
community participation in their management; strengthening public services,
especially education and health; community skills training; and microfinance
services. Development assistance needs to be targeted at communities having a
high migration rate.
b. Open legal migration opportunities: There is international consensus, as
expressed in the 2003 ILO Asia Regional Tripartite Meeting in Bangkok, that
easy and transparent legal migration opportunities could be part of an effective
response to irregular migration. The most important priorities for Cambodia’s
legal recruitment are to streamline administrative procedures, speed facilitation
and reduce placement costs. In addition to accelerating the issuance of passports
and visas, the paper suggests that information on the recruitment process and fees
and allowable costs should be publicised.
c. Regulate recruitment agencies: At the moment, Sub-decree 57 is the primary
instrument. It lacks comprehensive coverage and clarity, especially regarding
fees, training and workplace monitoring, supervision, compliance and penalties.
Recruitment and placement need to be regulated through the licensing system, in
which the responsibilities of agencies, conditions for recruitment, penalties for
violation and performance guarantees should be clearly defined. The regulations
should provide for cancellation of licences in case of malpractice and for criminal
proceedings against serious offenders.
d. Combat human trafficking: Preventing trafficking would help reduce irregular
migration and protect migrants from slavery and severe exploitation. This research
does not attempt to elaborate policy to combat trafficking, but its prevention can be
CDRI Working Paper Series No. 58 3
aided by the following measures: being active in regional initiatives and working
more closely with major destinations; strengthening law enforcement and the
capacity of officers; and intensifying advocacy and awareness raising.
ii. Protection and well-being of migrant workers: Migrant workers can be better
protected through intensifying educational campaigns and expanding support
a. Intensify education and awareness raising: Many migrants, especially irregular
ones, are unaware of the practical, legal, social and economic consequences of
moving to another country. Better information means better protection, and we
therefore recommend intensified education and awareness raising before departure.
Information can be disseminated through a combination of measures:
_ National and provincial migration resource centres to register prospective
migrant workers and provide information. The centres should be focal points
to disseminate information and a place that migrants can telephone or visit
for counselling. The information can be disseminated via booklets, posters,
counselling, tours, mass media, meetings, workshops and seminars.
_ Educational campaigns targeting communities with a high rate of irregular
migration need to be strengthened. Given the inadequate resources of district
and provincial labour offices, community-based NGOs and village or commune
chiefs, monks and schoolteachers can play a vital role in providing information
to migrants.
b. Expand support services: There has been limited support for the protection and
empowerment of migrant workers, particularly irregular migrants. Posting labour
attachés in Thailand and Malaysia is one way to strengthen support. Their functions
should include developing a strong working relationship with the host country
on labour issues; monitoring the treatment of migrant workers; providing legal
assistance against contract violations, abuse or exploitation; providing advice on
problems with contracts or employment; and ensuring that irregular migrants are
protected and facilitated in repatriation.
iii. Strengthen international cooperation: Migration is inherently a multilateral issue
that requires concerted efforts to address it. Irregular migration can best be addressed
in bilateral and regional frameworks complementing national policy.
a. Strengthen bilateral cooperation: Cooperation between sending and receiving
countries proves effective in addressing irregular migration. This paper argues
that Cambodia should work more collaboratively with Thailand and Malaysia on
both streamlining legal recruitment procedure and regularisation programmes for
irregular Cambodian workers.
b. Toward an integrated Greater Mekong Subregion labour market: Cross-border
labour movement across the GMS has been dynamic, yet there is no subregional
regulatory or institutional framework to facilitate it. This paper recommends the
integration of labour markets in the GMS. The initial step to achieve this is to
include labour migration in the GMS-wide development agenda and then create an
expert forum to explore the feasibility and provide recommendations to leaders.
4 Irregular Migration from Cambodia
c. ASEAN economic integration and free movement of labour: Although migration
and mobility should be among the priority issues in ASEAN, there has been little
discussion of labour mobility or migration in meetings of labour ministers. ASEAN
should adopt the ASEAN Framework Instrument as a legally binding document.
ASEAN should also work toward a free flow of labour within the region and treat
migration as a key development agenda by facilitating the free circulation of skilled
and unskilled labour.

Number of pages



Cambodia Development Resource Institute

Place published

Phnom Penh, Cambodia

File Attachments



illegal migrant Cambodian migrant workers

Economic sectors

General relevance - all sectors

Content types

Policy analysis and Support initiatives

Target groups

Policymakers, Researchers, and NGOs/community groups/solidarity networks

Geographical focuses

Regional relevance

Spheres of activity

Law and Social work