Why ASEAN’s ‘Travel Corridor’ Falls Short for the Region’s Migrant Workers

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ASEAN Beat | Society | Southeast Asia

Why ASEAN’s ‘Travel Corridor’ Falls Short for the Region’s Migrant Workers

As the case of Cambodia shows, the bloc’s new framework agreement fails to address the factors driving undocumented migration in Southeast Asia.

Why ASEAN’s ‘Travel Corridor’ Falls Short for the Region’s Migrant Workers

The border crossing between Poipet, Cambodia and Aranyaprathet, Thailand.

Credit: Flickr/James Antrobus

Prior to the pandemic, Southeast Asia had been one of Asia’s key labor migration corridors. The Association of Southeast Asian Nations (ASEAN) includes approximately 10 million migrant workers. However, over the course of the pandemic, more than 10.6 million jobs and 7.8 percent of labor income have been lost, with devastating consequences for employers and workers alike. Between the beginning of the pandemic and the end of last year, over 260,000 Cambodian migrant workers have returned home. 

In looking to the future, ASEAN is making it clear that restarting travel, including labor-related travel, is one of the bloc’s main agenda items. One of the key initiatives being prioritized as part of post-COVID-19 recovery is the ASEAN Travel Corridor Arrangement Framework (ATCAF), which has been in discussion since 2020. It aims to facilitate the essential movement of people while safeguarding public health; particularly establishing the mutual recognition of vaccine certificates and other standardized health measures.

As the holder of ASEAN’s rotating chairmanship in 2022, Cambodia has recognized the need to boost the implementation of such a travel arrangement with the hope that travel and business activities can gradually return to normal, which is particularly important given the large number of Cambodians working abroad.

But if this framework is to be the fresh start that Cambodian – and Southeast Asian – labor migration really needs, there are a few key questions that must first be addressed. First, what benefit does the ATCAF offer to Cambodia at large, and to Cambodian migrant workers more specifically? And will the framework do anything to address the major challenges facing the current labor migration landscape, including long standing rules that have unintentionally incentivized illegal migration?

Benefits for Cambodia  

First, let us examine what the travel corridor promises in terms of new policies and regulations and how that might impact Cambodians migrating abroad. 

ASEAN claims that the new framework will prioritize the health and safety of travelers and communities. As part of ATCAF, common sets of pre-departure and post-arrival health and safety measures have been discussed by the member states in order to mitigate the spread of COVID-19. Within the framework, Cambodia can anticipate three main benefits. 

First, formal migration channels will be reopened and business travel will gradually resume. This will allow people to migrate back for work and send remittances to their family and will provide a much-needed boost to many Cambodian families. In 2019, Cambodia received approximately $1.5 billion in remittances from migrant workers abroad. The number dropped to $1.2 billion in 2020 following the mass exodus of Cambodian migrant workers due to COVID-19. But in 2021, Cambodia’s Ministry of Labor announced that remittances jumped up to $3 billion, likely because foreign employers have been willing to pay more – including overtime and bonuses – to keep production running. 

Second, the framework will help streamline the migration process while reducing the spread of the virus. Under the ATCAF, vaccinated travelers will not be required to undergo quarantine upon arrival in destination countries that are also members of ATCAF. However, travelers must test negative for the virus 72 hours prior to the departure and then again upon arrival. Additionally, they must show physical or virtual proof of their vaccination, as recognized by the destination country’s authorities. 

Such initiatives have already been undertaken by Indonesia and Singapore. Indonesia has thus far opened Lagoi and Nongsapura to vaccinated travelers from Singapore without any required quarantine, while Singapore announced the opening of a vaccinated travel lane from these two areas into its country. Given the extent to which community transmission through the arrival of undetected positive cases among nationals and foreigners has been a concern for Cambodia, the implementation of these measures would be beneficial to the safe resumption of both business and travel related-activities. 

Third, through the creation of a regional arrangement, member states are able to jointly work together to deal with the migration issues at hand and seek common solutions. The ATCAF will enable member states to bilaterally cooperate with each other as well as with external partners to deal with challenges and continue sustaining growth and development within the region. Since ASEAN member states have been relying on one another as sending and receiving countries, exchanging thousands of migrant workers annually, reopening sovereign borders stands to benefit everyone. 

The framework does, however, leave significant gaps when it comes to much-needed regional labor immigration reforms. But before we consider what this framework is lacking, we first must consider the migration landscape onto which this framework will be applied. That landscape, at least for Cambodians, has been dominated by workers who have chosen to migrate illegally. 

Incentivizing Undocumented Migration

Prior to the pandemic, the number of Cambodian illegal migrant workers overseas remained high, despite numerous efforts made by the government to tackle the issue. 

According to a joint 2017 survey conducted by the International Labor Organization (ILO) and International Organization for Migration (IOM), less than a third of Cambodian migrant workers migrated through official channels, while the majority used unlicensed brokers and other social networks such as friends and family. Dy Thehoya, a senior program officer of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights, notes that more than 400,000 workers were estimated to be working illegally in Thailand as of February 2021. 

Poverty among workers, the high cost of legal documents, and the high number of illegal brokers are some of many factors that have incentivized migrant workers to migrate overseas through unofficial channels. 

In a 2020 ILO report, the high cost of obtaining the official documents that Cambodian migrants must possess in order to be considered “legal” was listed as one of the key factors that discouraged workers migrating through regular channels. The report found that a migrant worker would have to spend between $169 and $304 to obtain all of the required documents. In comparison, a 2016 IOM report found that the average cost of migrating through brokers was between $98 and $130, while migrating independently or through friends or family members costs $90-$98. 

This illustrates the stark choice facing workers. How can they choose to spend this kind of money on proper documentation when lack of money is the primary reason they are venturing abroad in the first place?  Poverty – combined with high debt, unemployment, and landlessness – are the primary catalysts for Cambodians to migrate in search of work. While legal labor migration is obviously preferable when it comes to safety and security, most migrant workers have no choice but to use illegal methods, despite the risks and vulnerabilities inherent to this status. 

The high number of illegal brokers also adds incentive for workers to migrate through unofficial channels. Those who do not possess sufficient legal documents or try to avoid authorities’ measures might seek to hire brokers to assist them through unregulated routes or illegal methods. The cheaper cost of the brokerage method, along with the skillful persuasion of these brokers, have made many workers fall victims. 

As the COVID-19 pandemic continues, the gaps in monitoring, enforcement, and compliance with the existing national legislation and the ATCAF framework continue to leave migrant workers vulnerable. Poor regulation along the smaller border checkpoints, weak social protection schemes, and the high number of illegal brokers have caused instability along the borders during the lockdown. Since 2020, thousands of Cambodian migrant workers have flocked back home causing worries of community outbreak.

For those who migrated overseas illegally, returning home through official border crossings means risking getting caught or fined for staying illegally in the host country, or other consequences such as travel bans. Thus, the brokerage method has become even more popular. 

Civil society groups have raised concerns about the increasing cases of “systematic” illegal human smuggling across the Cambodia-Thailand border during the pandemic. In the first quarter of 2021, the authorities identified 85 such cases, according to Chou Bun Eng, vice chairwomen of the National Committee for Counter Trafficking, as reported by CamboJa News

The Way Forward

Having considered the realities on the ground for Cambodia’s migrant workers, it is clear that the ASEAN framework leaves much to be desired.

The framework itself may have mentioned the creation of a common set of pre-departure and post-arrival health and safety measures as well as other requirements set out by both sending and receiving states. However, these safety measures can only be implemented for those who migrate through legal channels, whereas those who continue to choose illegal/undocumented channels will not be able to track their health status. 

It is therefore essential for sending and receiving governments alike to work together to create and implement policies that get at the factors that incentivize workers to choose migration via illegal channels in the first place. One of the first steps should be to reduce the cost of legal documents and to make the process for obtaining those documents easier. 

Cross-border investigations and punishments should also be strengthened for those who are involved in businesses responsible for illegally smuggling or trafficking migrant workers; for instance, illegal brokers and corrupt authorities. In addition, in order to fully ensure the public health safety especially for the migrant workers, it is also crucial for states to start putting more focus on strengthening existing social protection schemes. 

While many countries have adopted social programs to protect their citizens’ health and well-being, mobile groups like migrant workers have been excluded. There have also been inequalities in social benefits between high- and low-skilled migrant workers because of their differing employment, migration, and residence status.

To safeguard against COVID-19, it is important that everyone, regardless of their immigration status, is entitled to affordable quality health care and treatment. Governments should rethink the social protection programs for the migrant workers and design an inclusive social protection mechanism. Given the mobile nature of these populations, collaborative, cross-border protection schemes should be a topic of conversation for ASEAN.

ATCAF can help Cambodia recover from the impacts caused by the pandemic and a way forward to rethink about the migration policies in the post-COVID-19 future, but without an innovative and pragmatic approach to old problems like illegal migration, these issues will continue to plague the region long into the future.