PHNOM PENH (REUTERS) - Cambodia is facing a new wave of human trafficking as desperate workers use illegal means to cross closed borders in the hope of finding work in Thailand, officials have warned.
About 90,000 Cambodians returned from Thailand before borders were shut in March to stem the spread of the coronavirus and people smugglers are now helping them find their way back, said the government's anti-trafficking czar Chou Bun Eng.
"Those who cross the border are breaking the law, but the traffickers, who collude with private firms in Thailand, are even more to blame," she told journalists on Wednesday (May 27).
Interior Minister Sar Kheng said military and police stationed near the border were on high alert.
More than two million Cambodians - about half of them undocumented - are thought to be working in Thailand, mostly in the agriculture, fisheries and production sectors, which have been plagued by reports of slavery and labour abuse.
With borders still closed to the public and regular avenues of recruitment shut down, "local brokers" are exploiting a section of the population that is drowning in debt and becoming increasingly desperate, human rights groups said.
"The brokers, they know the illegal channels, they have the networks on both sides of the border - this is a golden opportunity for them," said Mr Dy Thehoya, senior programme officer at the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights.
"Sometimes they have jobs to offer, and sometimes they don't. Either way, as soon as migrants step over the border without proper documents, they are completely vulnerable."
Once in Thailand, Cambodians can be exploited by brokers and employers, who charge exorbitant prices for transport, documents and job placement. Many become trapped in debt bondage.
Mr Nguon Ratanak, governor of northeastern Battambang province, which borders Thailand, said two Cambodian "masterminds" were arrested this week, giving no further details.
Those crossing the border illegally were responding to urgent demand for farm labour in Thailand, he said.
Ms Kristin Parco, who heads the United Nations migration agency in Cambodia, said the need to service ballooning debt was the primary factor pushing Cambodians into unsafe migration.
At about US$3,800 (S$5,390), Cambodia's average microloan debt per borrower is the highest in the world, and more than double the average annual salary.
"It's the same reason they migrated in the first place," Ms Parco said.
Cambodia made 229 human trafficking-related arrests in 2019, the government's anti-trafficking agency announced this week, up slightly from 224 the previous year.
In the same period, 456 people were freed from slavery in Cambodia, up from 230, while 290 were rescued from overseas, mostly from forced marriages in China.
Cambodia was downgraded last year to the lowest ranking in the United States' annual trafficking report, meaning that it must demonstrate improvements or face economic sanctions.