A difficult economic situation…
Even though Cambodia has seen a major improvement regarding poverty reduction in the past years, the situation remains very difficult for the majority of the population. Indeed, the number of people living with less than 1.25 US$ per day dropped from 31% in 2007 to 10% in 2011. But most people increased their revenues by very little: 41% of the people were still living with less than 2 US$ per day and 72% with less than 3 US$ per day. The improvement is undeniable, but most of the population is still at risk of falling back into extreme poverty and remain very vulnerable. This situation is especially difficult for the population given that the government provides no social safety net.
In 2016, 79% of the population lived in rural areas, where most of the work was in agriculture. Climate change has put a serious threat on farmers who often have to contract debts to compensate for the loss of their harvest.
…leading to massive migration…
Between 250 000 and 300 000 new young workers are entering the labour market each year in Cambodia, yet, the domestic labour market does not generate enough working opportunities for this workforce. Furthermore, the salaries remain very low compared to employment opportunities existing abroad or in the capital. This combination of both push and pull factors generates a massive migration movement emptying some areas of rural Cambodia. However, being quite new, the data on the consequences of this migration in the country remains unknown. Most data regarding migration relies on border controls, and is considered largely unreliable. As far as the detailed profile or the consequences this phenomenon has on Cambodian society, there is still no extensive research on the subject. Most of the evidence is thus anecdotal.
Jobs found for Cambodian migrants are gender segregated. Women will most likely find jobs in the garment industry, in the entertainment sector and as small business owners. These professions are the lowest paying and so women make less money than men if they migrate, but they are more likely to send remittance to their village of origin, on a more regular basis and on a larger scale. They remit on average 20% more than their male counterparts.
While most of educated migrants will go to Phnom Penh, those without education tend to go abroad.
…to Phnom Penh…
Half of the people leaving the countryside go to Phnom Penh. Globalization has brought many factory jobs to Phnom Penh. Tourism has also brought jobs in the service sector. The population in Phnom Penh has doubled in an eight-year period, which has also led to other jobs related to improving the infrastructure of the capital. The other urban centres and rural areas have not seen this level of growth, indeed, outside of the capital, most of the population lives in a near poverty situation.
Migrants to Phnom Penh are mostly young, and most of them are women. Phnom Penh now has a slightly larger female population than male. Female migrants are much less likely to move there for their education, but far more likely to move there for labour opportunity.
Women make up 41% of the total number of cross border migrants who migrated through legal channels.
There are more and more women amongst the migrating population, because of a higher demand in domestic work and in the manufacturing industry, but also because evolution in social norms now allows them to travel on their own.
The main country of migration is Thailand, and only about 10% of the people are migrating through the legal channels established under the Memorandum of Understanding between the two countries. Among those, 37% are women. 33% of them worked in the construction sector, 16% in the agriculture sector, 10% in services and 6% in domestic work. However, most of them did not migrate through legal channels because migrating legally takes around 700 US$, while someone would only pay around 100 US$ to be illegally smuggled into Thailand with no waiting period. Surveys among potential migrants reveal that knowledge about safe migration and rights at work is very low.
Thai laws are getting more and more strict regarding illegal migration, putting illegal migrants at risk of being incarcerated for lack of proper documentation and deported back to Cambodia. But if the situation doesn’t change at home, many families will still prefer to take their chance in Thailand, as it is often the only way to make a living for a poor family.
Many smugglers work in rural areas and people often contract debts to be sent abroad, mostly in Thailand. Sometimes, smugglers wait for the deportees on the Cambodian side of the Thai border in order to smuggle them back right away. With little government support and sometimes no supervision at the borders, migrating, even in an unsafe way, remains the preferred choice for families that are unable to put food on the table.
Female cross-border migrants made up 89% of the total number of Cambodian workers deployed in Malaysia in 2011; the vast majority of them (75%) were domestic workers. The average salary for a Cambodian domestic worker is approximately 200$ per month (in 2010), as they did not qualify to get the minimum salary. An increasing number of reports of violence against Cambodian domestic workers have led the Cambodian government to put a ban on sending domestic workers to Malaysia in 2011. This ban has been lifted in 2017 even though measures to protect the workers against abuse are not in place.
52.1% of all Cambodians are under 25 years old, so financial responsibility falls to the youngest segment of the population. Poverty pushes many children to work at a young age. In 2011, UNICEF reported that one third of Cambodian children between the ages of five and seventeen were engaged in labour. When there are no working opportunities at home, even children migrate to support their family. It was the case for Nipha, who crossed the border when she was just a child, to support her family.
…putting migrants at risk
This massive migration puts a number of the migrants at risk of falling into human trafficking. Cambodia is a country of origin, transit and destination for human trafficking. If sex trafficking is the best-known version of this trade, it is not the only one; many Cambodians are trafficked into domestic work. Some children are sold to begging rings in Thailand, and many are enrolled in forced labour in the agriculture sector or in the construction industry. Since migration has become a very common thing, most people rely on smugglers, who sometimes trick migrants by promising them a better life and then sell them to the traffickers, while the migrants have no idea what’s in store for them.
Girls, who are enrolled in the sex industry, sometimes very young and, mostly in Cambodia, are often sold by their own families to traffickers, which makes it very hard for them to protest.. Indeed, in the Cambodian society children have little say in their own lives in front of their parents decisions (see the interviews of Bopha and Jany Min). In many cases, after a spiral of debts that they can’t pay off, they decide to sacrifice one daughter to avoid retaliation from the loan sharks. There is also a big market for virgins. When they manage to escape, it is hard to reintegrate them back into their community because their pimps often look for them in search of a return on their investment. This problem remains high in Cambodia due to, among other things, the rampant corruption. Indeed, many police officers are taking bribes to facilitate the transportation of the victims abroad, or to protect brothel owners who pay the traffickers to sell them women, and even sometimes children.
Phnom Penh Post: Slavery and Human trafficking in Cambodia, 2000 – Ban on maids to Malaysia officially lifted, government directive shows, 2017
United States Department of State: trafficking in persons report, 2015
CNN: the women who sold their daughters into sex slavery, 2013
The Diplomat: Cambodia’s ongoing human trafficking problem, 2014
Ministry of Planning, Royal Government of Cambodia: Migration in Cambodia, Report of the Cambodian Rural Urban Migration Project (CRUMP), 2012:
World Bank: Where have all the poor gone? Cambodia Poverty Assessement, 2013
International Labor Organization: Cross border labour migration in Cambodia: considerations for the national employement policy, 2013