Coming Back: Migrant Workers in Prey Veng

Photographs by Miguel Lopes Jerónimo

Southeast Asia was one of the most successful regions in the world when it came to tackling Covid-19, creating great opportunities for fast recovery if cooperation and multilateral policy are harnessed. Although cases and deaths remain relatively low, the economic and social impacts are immense, especially in countries such as Cambodia, where 90% of workers are engaged in the informal economy. The geographical and job market realities between neighbouring countries play a huge role in the economic dynamics and mobility of this region, with Thailand and Malaysia, for instance, being a common destination for hundreds of thousands of Cambodian workers in search of a better life. Farming, construction and factory work, as well as street vending have been regular jobs taken in the recent past by a vast sector of the most underprivileged families. Precariousness, uncertainty and the oft undocumented status of a majority of migrant workers turned them into some of the most vulnerable members of society during this health crisis. More than 120,000 were forced to come back to Cambodia (as of December 2020 when the following photo essay was created) due to loss of income or just plain fear for their uncertain future, making them face discrimination and the inherent difficulties of finding a livelihood in some of the most rural areas of Cambodia.

Coming Back

These photos were taken in Prey Pnov and Prey Sla communes, in Prey Veng province, as a visual documentation of the challenges migrants face due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent need to return to their home country. But more importantly, these pictures aim to be a celebration of movement and the natural human desire for self-actualization, a promotion of co-development within Southeast Asian nations by supporting its people to move freely and stand stronger as one unified community.

The project was done for the Cambodian chapter of the International Organisation for Migration (IOM-UN Migration), to commemorate International Migrants Day on 18 December 2020. It follows the motto that migration has been, throughout human history, a courageous expression of the individual’s will to overcome adversity and to live a better life. This series is not only a way to give voice to migrants and make them feel seen, these are their stories of returning home, of their resilience and will to get back to their lives after the pandemic ends. It’s time to reimagine human mobility and its role in lifting livelihoods while helping countries to grow back together in a post-pandemic world.

Discriminatory views of seeing migrants as possible carriers of the virus still exist, even if the process of coming back to the country has been largely following appropriate safety measures, with quarantine at government facilities or at home. Families responsibly stayed apart during the fourteen days of self-isolation the returnee had to go through, with even meals being taken apart from each other. In addition, the issues of reintegration are many, with little savings and few livelihood opportunities waiting for the migrants back home.

Migration is an essential ingredient in the recovery recipe for a world after Covid-19. Between providing a valuable work force in the host country to the importance of remittances to the family back in the homeland, mobility is responsible for many successful stories for a developing country such as Cambodia. Take the example of Yea Naren and Sok Chean, a young couple who managed to build their own house after working for eight years in Thailand as a nurse and as a fisherman. “It’s something to be happy and proud about. I feel safer to have my own home for my kids to grow up in.”

Migration is one of the many manifestations of the most intimate human drive, a desire for a better life and a will to offer a brighter future to the next generation. From awareness and behaviour change campaigns targeting the general public, to concrete actions on the policy level, the world can benefit from a quicker recovery if migrants are taken into account, not only in an economic sense, but more importantly, as a path towards a more just and inclusive world.

Providing better social services such as education and mental health support – for instance only 57% of the interviewed migrants completed primary education, while another 10% never attended school, and one third of returnees cited mental and psychosocial health issues as their main concern apart from the difficulty of finding a job – and assisting in vocational training, promoting stronger law enforcement in terms of human trafficking and labour exploitation, as well as continuing the extension of healthcare access for vulnerable migrants as some countries did during the pandemic would be a start to creating a more resilient future. A crisis such as the one we faced in 2020-2021 can be the right wake-up call to rebuild better: a fresh start that takes everyone into account.