In a country where 50% of the population is under 25, to migrate abroad in search of decent work is, for many young Cambodians in rural areas, seen as the only option for exiting poverty. In fact, one-third of the country’s labour force migrates for work. Many Cambodians leave their loved ones, their sons and daughters behind, to find a better paid job abroad hoping to improve the life standards back at home and provide a better future for their children.
Lack or little job opportunities, irregular income, high rate of unemployment and limited access to education are some of the factors that push many low-skilled workers to migrate. In addition, severe weather conditions, such as droughts and floods, and indebtedness are reasons why some families feel forced to cross the border and look for alternative employment. In many cases, they leave their children behind with grandparents and send monthly remittances for their maintenance.
More than 70% of Cambodian migrants send money to their relatives, an estimated 0.3 billion USD in 2016. These regular remittances help households to improve their situation as they can invest in small businesses, benefit from proper healthcare and provide children with a good education, reducing the risk of child labour.
Our fieldwork suggests that, in some cases, remittances are the sole income for the families left behind. Therefore, changes in the law regarding migrant’s status in Thailand directly affects families in Cambodia and could lead to the disruption of livelihoods: unable to pay their accumulated debts with micro-finance institutions, families of migrants could see their land and other property confiscated. In 2017 the Thai Royal Ordinance on Migrant Worker Management triggered an exodus of undocumented workers similar to the one in 2014, though less in scale. The aim of the measure was to standardise the procedure and to bring all undocumented migrant workers under the Memorandum of Understanding (MoU) process. In that period we observed in the Self-Help Groups that many migrants were coming back to Cambodia with the aim to regularize their status. Although many succeeded, many violations were observed with workers being overcharged for the documentation process or waiting an excessive amount of time. When the deadline passed at the end of June 2018, the Royal Government of Thailand estimated that there were still 10,000 unregistered Cambodian workers in Thailand as of the beginning of July 2018. Deportations and fines for undocumented workers started. The result of this on the families left behind is yet to be observed.
A part from the remittance-dependence there is another issue affecting the families of migrants. Parental migration can result in economic, social, health and psychological problems for the families left behind. Elderly, children and women suddenly have to rely on their own with a greater burden of responsibility of work and household chores. Being part of a family fractured by migration make them even more vulnerable. Women and girls are particularly concerned as the possibility to go to school and work outside their homes is drastically reduced. With agriculture being highly vulnerable to climate events, it becomes even more difficult for female-headed households to guarantee sufficient income to cope with the absence of an active family member.
Parental migration may have also a negative impact on children’s education. The absence of the main caregiver disrupts personal care, increases left behind children’s probability of dropping out of school and delays school re-enrolment. Grandparents are less equipped to care for young children. Developing the education of their grandchildren is not an easy task, especially when they are the single caretaker and sole figure of authority for four or five of them. In this family setting, overlooked children can be more exposed to abuse and sexual violence.
We are well aware of the challenges faced by the left behind on a daily basis. 70% of the participants to our Self-Help Groups’ meetings are females, mostly elderly women. These grandmothers confess it is very difficult for them to send their grandchildren to school while keep working in the fields. They lack access to basic social and health services and, with little or no news from their children working abroad, they constantly worry that something wrong may have happened to them and become more prone to loneliness and depression. In targeted communities across seven provinces, we meet potential, current and returned migrants and their families. In the effort to alleviate their suffering, we provide them with a platform to raise their awareness and build their knowledge about safe migration and access to services to better address needs of the left behind people. During Self-Help Groups, we encourage villagers to share their experience and facilitate access to concrete information by distributing hotline numbers and contact details of partner NGOs and national authorities they can reach if they need help.
 GVC observations from the SHG held in Migra Action project