The Shadow Pandemic of Migration in Cambodia Commentary
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The Shadow Pandemic of Migration in Cambodia

As of the second week of February 2021, there have been a total of 466 COVID-19 cases registered in Cambodia, 443 recoveries and 0 deaths. Cambodia is managing the COVID-19 pandemic well in comparison to global superpowers. This achievement can be contrasted with the United Kingdom, where there have been a total of 3,817,176 cases, 106,158 deaths and plans to stay in lockdown until the middle of February. Or, it can be further contrasted with the United States of America where there has been a total of 26,767,229 cases and 452,279 deaths. Despite new hope and the beginning of vaccinations, the prior statistics are not static, nor are they bound to decrease expeditiously.

Cambodia’s success can be attributed to the quick response of the government and introduction of public health measures including border control and mandatory 14 days quarantine for incoming passengers, followed by COVID-19 testing. On March 17th, 2020, Cambodia banned entries from France, Germany, Italy, Spain and the United States. On March 20th, Cambodia’s borders with its neighbor Vietnam were closed and then its border with Thailand was closed on the 23rd of the same month. By March 28th, there were strict travel restrictions imposed to enter Cambodia, measures that are still in place. Within the span of a month, the resourceful albeit strict regime in Cambodia ensured a streak of no new cases, and limited risk of local community transmission.

The COVID-19 pandemic has had an immense impact on not just the health system, but also on the economy of every country. Jobs in the private sector and tourism disappeared overnight and thousands of migrant workers hurried to go back home. In 2019, the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs (UNDESA) reported that over 700,000 Cambodians were working abroad, primarily in the neighboring state of Thailand. These statistics make Cambodia a sizable country of origin for migrants. However, the pandemic has minimized economic opportunities for Cambodian migrants. In June 2020, the International Organization for Migration (IOM) reported that over 90,000 Cambodian migrants returned from Thailand. These border crossings are routine and in April, were estimated to be about 2,000 a day but reduced to about 200 a day in May. These statistics are solely based on Cambodian migrants returning from Thailand; on including returns from Malaysia, Japan and South Korea, the estimated total would be exponentially higher.

From January 2020 to December 2020, 126,115 Cambodian migrants returned- the majority coming through the Thai Cambodia border. Up until January of this year, there was a vast difference in the regulatory measures for people arriving by air who were all tested for COVID-19, and those coming through the land border who were screened for symptoms. Thus, instead of testing, migrants were screened for symptoms such as high temperatures and then quarantined for two weeks if they showed such symptoms. Currently, all migrants are required to get tested and then quarantine. However, there is a gap between regulations and reality. Marta Walkowiak, the Programme Development and Communications Specialist for the IOM commented:

There are rigorous regulations and guidelines presented by the Ministry of Health; however, the flow of migrants creates issues on how they get screened and transported to isolation facilities, and there are not a lot of quarantine facilities available with schools being used to monitor hundreds of migrants in very small unequipped spaces.

Rapid assessment made by the IOM entailed that only 30% of migrants use the official border checkpoints to return to Cambodia, meaning the total number of incoming migrants is a mere estimate. Regular Cambodian channels are expensive and inaccessible for most Cambodian migrants. Consequently, the majority of Cambodian migrants have travelled abroad through social networks and unlicensed intermediaries. The above-mentioned channels of migration are of great relevance as the irregular status of many Cambodian migrants leads to their avoidance of official borders. Thus, the number of returning migrants is higher than predicted and these migrants are entering Cambodia without being tested and quarantined.

Two assessments were made by the IOM: the first, a rapid assessment in May 2020 when the crisis imploded, and thousands of migrants returned; and another bigger assessment in August 2020 to better understand the needs of the returning migrants. In response to the May survey, there was a focus on immediate relief. IOM focused on primary needs such as water, food and hygiene kits in the unequipped quarantine centers. IOM also negotiated and advocated for migrants’ rights and cooperated with local hospitals by providing them with medical supplies and training for COVID-19 testing. There was also an open line of communication with Thailand as currently there is an estimate of 1.2 million Cambodia migrant workers stationed there, yet there has been little action from the Cambodian government to bring them home. Therefore, the open line of discussion is an important measure moving forward, and so is the two-year free working permit extension the Thai government implemented. Chanthida Dum, national project manager for IOM summarized that there are three areas of help implemented by the IOM:

[D]ue to limited information during the pandemic, there was fear and misunderstanding. Therefore, last year the most important areas of help were the points of entry and the quarantine centers with a focus on making sure the migrants were not discriminated against. Currently, there is a focus on livelihood support and reintegration into the host communities by generating opportunities through skills development.

In addition, the Cambodian government has also provided immediate response and support such as police and military transportation for the incoming migrants. However, this support was mostly visible in the initial stages. There was a social protection scheme developed by the Cambodian government and the Deutsche Gesellschaft für Internationale Zusammenarbeit (GIZ) called IDPoor. IDPoor registers poor households and then transfers cash. While it has been a successful program since 2006 and between the years 2015-2017 it reached 550,000 households, it is not fully accessible to migrants. To be registered they must be in the village when it happens, and migrants are unregistered and out of the country, not to mention they are disproportionately affected by COVID-19 in so many aspects.

Moving forward into 2021, the challenges migrants will face are reflected in IOM assessments and the major concern seems to be livelihood. The question of how to generate employment and reintegrate migrants is topical. IOM is confident in their response network and the communication between UN agencies and the Cambodian government. Yet the inclusion of migrants into the host community and safe migration remain two unanswered questions. However, it is important to note that IOM is advocating for migrants to be a priority group in receiving vaccination to allow them to travel once again without posing risks. In conclusion, Cambodia is a country which has managed the crisis well so far with the limited resources they have at hand, but the burning issue of returning migrants and their livelihoods is still in question. It is a stark comparison between the individuals who await the end of the pandemic to return to their international travel lifestyle with those who – like the migrants- need to travel and work abroad to support their families.


​Dana Andreeva is a second year law student at the University of Groningen and a Staff Writer at JURIST.


Suggested citation: ​Dana Andreeva​, ​The Shadow Pandemic of Migration in Cambodia​, JURIST – ​Student​ Commentary, February 24, 2021​,​02​/​dana-andreeva-pandemic-cambodia-migration​/.

This article was prepared for publication by Akshita Tiwary​, a JURIST staff editor​. Please direct any questions or comments to her​ at

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