Providing protection and hope to Cambodian migrant workers
Access to vaccines has turned uncertainty into hope as returning migrants get vaccinated and reconnect with their families
Wednesday, 29 December 2021 – For almost two years the COVID-19 pandemic has challenged healthcare systems, stunted economies, and disrupted education around the world. Many people lost their jobs, children struggled to study from home and the practice of making definite plans was put on hold.
For migrant workers, who frequently move to follow the flow of work, the COVID-19 pandemic has meant increased uncertainty, instability, and even longer separation from families. There have been fewer jobs, while changing restrictions have made travel more difficult and even dangerous, as increased movement means increased exposure to COVID-19. All while access to healthcare services and vaccination became severely limited or impossible for those cut off from their home countries.
Mr. Sern Dara, 35, and his wife Mrs. Pharn Sreyorn, 33, are from Battambang Province and are among the large population of Cambodians who migrate to Thailand for work each year. They have been married for 16 years and have a 15-year-old daughter and a 13-year-old son who live in Phnom Penh with relatives when they are out of the country. Like most migrants, they head abroad in search of better paying work to support their families.
Today, they count themselves lucky to be among those protected by COVID-19 vaccines, however for Dara and Sreyorn and many like them, the pandemic has been a challenging trial.
When Dara and his wife decided to migrate to Thailand, whatever money not spent on food and rent was sent back to support their children’s education and cost of living. “We mostly worked construction and in factories, but we would do almost anything to earn more money to send home,” said Sreyorn. For the first few years, they went home to see their family twice a year. However, for the last few years they decided to stay in Thailand, working through the breaks, to send more money home.
As COVID-19 outbreaks in Thailand forced some factories and businesses to close or cut back their staff, it made it even harder for migrant workers like Dara and Sreyorn to afford basic essential living expenses, much less send money home. Sreyorn shared, “We worried about our family, while trying to keep the work we still had. In the factory, we feared for our health, wearing three layers of masks every single day. Even with those precautions, we knew people who got sick and had to be hospitalized.” Even worse, they shared, were those who got sick and didn’t have the money to be admitted for care and, as non-citizens, weren’t eligible for government support or COVID-19 vaccination.
Dara and Sreyorn managed to keep safe, but they heard that Sreyorn’s brother tested positive for COVID and was in the hospital. She called him and her children every day, to check on them, find out more about the changing situation in Cambodia, and remind them to be careful and stay safe.
On 13 August, the Cambodia-Thailand border was re-opened and Cambodian migrant workers could finally return home. In September 2021, COVID testing and vaccination for returning migrant workers was rolled out to health centers and referral hospitals in border provinces like Battambang, Poipet, and others. These hospitals and health centers are tasked with making sure that migrant workers get the care they need while also protecting the Cambodian population from community outbreaks. Of those returning from Thailand, around 10 per cent have tested positive for COVID-19.
Sreyorn and her husband returned in mid-November and both tested negative upon arrival. They were provided vaccination at the border, then spent 14 days quarantining at a health center for before returning to Battambang. “I am so grateful that vaccines were available for us. I felt confident returning to see my extended family and children,” said Sreyorn.
Ms. Meas Chenda works at Bevel referral hospital in Battambang province, where Dara and Sreyorn were vaccinated. She shared, “More people getting their jabs means we are all closer to being fully protected…I’m proud of our government’s work to reach people in every commune and district, providing information and encouraging people to get vaccinated. I hope COVID-19 will be under control soon, so our country, our families, and our businesses can be healthy and prosperous again.”
UNICEF is a key partner of the Ministry of Health in vaccine procurement and delivery, while also working to strengthen health systems, cold chain capacities, and frontline worker preparedness. In parallel, UNICEF works on risk communication and community engagement to ensure that all Cambodians have reliable, accurate, and up-to-date information about staying safe from COVID-19. Vulnerable populations, including migrant workers, those living in streets situations, and people with disabilities have been a key focus of UNICEF’s outreach and collaboration with partners during the pandemic. These efforts have seen migrant workers, like Dara and Sreyorn, tested for COVID-19 at the borders upon re-entry, vaccinated before leaving quarantine centers, identified and contacted if they miss a vaccine dose and, where possible, getting prioritized for one-dose vaccine delivery to increase protection while easing the burden of extra travel. Generous support from Australia’s Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade (DFAT) reinforces this comprehensive work for equitable, safe and effective vaccination of vulnerable and priority groups against COVID-19.
Having had the experience of being cut-off from essential support and vital income in Thailand, Dara said, “I can’t speak for others, but my family and I are committed to protecting our family members and community by getting fully vaccinated. We encourage other villagers to get vaccinated when it is their turn and, if unsure, to talk to vaccinated relatives or ask local health workers about the side effects or other concerns.”
Dara and Sreyorn are happy to be back in Cambodia and fully vaccinated against COVID-19. Their plan is to find work in Phnom Penh and stay close to their children as long as they can. However, like many migrant workers, if they can’t earn enough with the work they find in Cambodia, they might have to return to Thailand. For now, Sreyorn feels safer than in a long time. Seeing most people in her community vaccinated and schools open again, she feels hopeful for what 2022 may bring for her and her family.