Thousands of Cambodian migrant workers in Thailand have flocked to the border along Cambodia’s Banteay Meanchey and Battambang provinces to return home for the Khmer New Year holiday. But many of the migrants say that before being allowed to return to Cambodia, they had to bribe both Thai and Cambodian border police.
The three-day holiday, running from Apr. 14-16, is the most important holiday in the country, and it is customary for Cambodians to return to their hometowns.
“We workers are not educated and we were afraid that we wouldn’t be able to return. We didn’t want any problems, so we just paid the officials,” said migrant worker Heng Chanhieng, in an interview with RFA’s Khmer Service Tuesday.
He said that when he was trying to cross through the border checkpoint in Battambag’s Kamrieng district he was asked to pay the equivalent of $6 to the Thai police and $3 to the Cambodian police, adding that nobody even dared to protest against the officials demanding the unofficial payments.
Another migrant, Lon Samnang, said he believes the Thai and Cambodian officers are in league with each other, colluding to extort the workers during the holiday season. He said that the officials demanded they put away their cellphones while collecting the money because they were afraid their pictures would be taken.
“If we didn’t have any money they would not have allowed us to return [to Cambodia,]” he said.
The migrant said he had to wait five hours before the police would even allow them to leave the border checkpoints.
Neth Phirum, meanwhile said police collected $10 from him during his return trip.
“We got in line and handed them the money,” he said, adding, “Nobody knows where that money went [or what it is for].”
Sok Kun, a Kamrieng immigration police officer denied that either the Thai or Cambodian police were taking bribes. He said the money was given to them voluntarily after the officials helped the migrants cross the border in an organized, timely manner.
“The money was their way of saying thanks,” he said.
The same situation was experienced by workers at the Poipet checkpoint in Banteay Meanchey’s Ou Chrov district.
Keo Soveacha said Wednesday that after he offered to pay a bribe, the Cambodian and Thai police split the proceeds.
“I wanted to speed up the process, so I said ‘I have $13,’” he said.
Dy Thehoya, a program officer for the Phnom Penh-based Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (CENTRAL), said he wants the government to stop the yearly extortion of the thousands of migrants returning home.
“We know that thousands of migrants work in Thailand. The government should have a policy to help them get through the border checkpoints faster without having to pay extra money,” he said.
Heang Kimsoeun, a social worker, filed a complaint Thursday to Cambodia’s Anti-Corruption Unit, asking them to investigate corruption along the border. The complaint said workers are made to pay $10-$11 to get through border checkpoints. He said that those responsible for the corruption should be brought to justice.
“What are [the police] doing with that money? This is illegal,” he said.
RFA attempted to contact Thai officials for comment. The deputy immigration chief declined to answer any questions, whereas the spokeswoman for the Ministry of Foreign Affairs received questions but did not reply. (RFA)