WASH facilities at Cambodia border help migrants in times of crisis
Essential facilities and supplies at Cambodia’s border protected the most vulnerable during the pandemic and will serve travellers for years to come
When the COVID-19 pandemic upended the livelihoods of Cambodian workers in Thailand, hundreds of thousands of migrants were forced to return home. Upon their arrival in Cambodia, however, they were met with another crisis just beyond the border.
Limited water, sanitation and hygiene facilities and supplies at Thai-Cambodia points of entry (PoEs), including no public toilets, proper handwashing stations, water, or other essential WASH supplies, put not only vulnerable migrants at risk of catching COVID-19, but as they continued their journeys to provinces across the country also increased the already high risks of virus transmission into rural communities, threatening to overwhelm hospitals and health facilities.
And as new variants emerged towards the end of 2021, including the highly contagious Delta variant, and travel restrictions were gradually lifted, allowing more people to use borders freely, it became even more crucial to ensure that migrants were protected while mitigating risks for larger-scale community transmission.
With support from the Japanese government, UNICEF worked with the Royal Government of Cambodia (RGC) to improve WASH facilities and provide cleaning and hygiene supplies at entry points along the Cambodia-Thai border in Battambang, Banteay Meanchey, and Oddar Meanchey provinces. This support played a critical role in filling gaps to suppress the transmission of COVID-19 while responding to the immediate essential health needs of returning migrant workers impacted by pandemic measures in Thailand.
Returning migrant workers from Thailand were considered one the most vulnerable populations impacted by the pandemic. Engaged in irregular informal employment either with no income or official documentation as well as limited access to health care facilities, many had limited access to testing and COVID-19 treatment and were unable to adhere to public health recommendations due to their living and working conditions, with home isolation for those tested positive not possible.
Between July 2022 and March 2023 UNICEF collaborated closely with the Ministry of Rural Development, its provincial departments, and the entry point authorities to install toilets, handwashing facilities, drilled wells, male urinals, and piped water connections alongside other toilet improvements at seven points of entry along the Thai-Cambodia border. WASH supplies, including sanitary pads for female migrant workers, were also provided, along with awareness-raising sessions and materials on COVID-19 prevention and the importance of handwashing, among other key hygiene practices and lessons that could be applied beyond the pandemic.
Today, as Cambodia continues to recover from COVID-19, the WASH facilities and supplies still provide essential support to the migrant workers who move back and forth between the two countries. They have also made life easier for the passengers who need to use them every day.
At Ou Rumduol PoE in Battambang, Chief of Police Administration Mr. Hing Ouk says the facilities benefit around 20-50 passengers daily as well as 300-400 passengers on the two days per week when a large market event is held on the Thai side of the border. “The WASH facilities and supplies play a very critical role and have helped us a lot,” he said. “We did not have public toilets or handwashing facilities before, and we faced a lot of issues, but it is very much more convenient now. We will keep all these facilities well-functioning, clean, and well-maintained.”
At PoEs in Banteay Meanchey and Oddar Meanchey, Boeng Trakuon and Choam, the authorities used to purchase water from water tanks to meet the demand, which was both costly and difficult. Mr. Chay Cheav, a military official at Choam PoE, says thanks to the newly drilled well that supplies water to the travelling passengers and people living nearby, they now have enough water for the whole day. “We want to sincerely thank UNICEF and the people of Japan who are generously providing support to Cambodia,” he says. “Choam Point of Entry used to spend between US$15 and US$20 on water daily. We could not use as much as we wanted.”
“The new drilled well can supply water to the entire point of entry and also benefits more than 20 families who are living around the area,” adds Mr. Yat Nara, the quarantine team leader from the Provincial Health Department of Oddar Meanchey.
Overall, the WASH facilities across all seven PoEs serve around 1,000 migrant workers and other travellers per day. Around half are female and 1-2 per cent are children.
Led by IOM, WHO, UNICEF, and UNFPA, the joint programme to support returning migrants during the later stages of the pandemic aimed to ensure that PoEs were equipped to safely screen returning migrant workers, that quarantine facilities at the three border provinces could safely prevent and control additional infections, and that healthcare workers at treatment facilities were prepared to treat patients. Alongside national authorities including the Ministry of Health and Ministry of Interior, the programme engaged provincial authorities, immigration and border police, military police, provincial and district health departments, local NGOs, and CSOs.
“UNICEF would like to express its appreciation and sincere thanks to the Japanese Embassy in Cambodia for their unwavering support and generous contribution,” says Anirban Chatterjee, UNICEF Cambodia Deputy Representative. “To build stronger, more inclusive and resilient communities, it is crucial to protect the most vulnerable groups in society. The improved WASH facilities and supplies along the Cambodia-Thai border provides critical support for migrant workers, families living in the area, and all the passengers who cross daily between the two countries. Not only do these facilities help prevent the spread of diseases like COVID-19 but they also protect the health and well-being of those who lack easy access to health care and other essential services as well as the families and children who will be using these facilities for many years to come.”