Labor migration is a growing phenomenon. Historically, Cambodia has called migrant workers “agents of innovation and development,” and migration has been promoted in order to boost economic development through remittances.
While it is also conventionally viewed as economically benefiting migrant workers’ households and their families, the impacts are not always positive. The social costs borne by migrant workers’ families are increasing.
As the number of migrant workers rises, more family members have been left behind. Approximately 83 percent of migrant workers worldwide are women, and they often have no choice but to leave their children at home with grandparents, relatives, or siblings.
Such separations of family members can produce multiple adverse impacts on health, education, labor supply and social status for family members who stay behind, especially children. Simultaneously, however, family members who instead migrate alongside the workers are also found to suffer.
While the plight of migrant workers has received some attention, it is worth highlighting that their family members can also face heavy burdens.
Past studies and surveys have shown that not only are migrant workers impacted by migration, but family members who stay behind in the home country also experience changes in their living conditions. The impacts are found to be both positive and negative.
From a positive standpoint, remittances are found to contribute significantly to livelihood improvements for migrant workers’ families. One study found they helped families afford food, clothes, health care and education. Remittances can also help cover loan and debt payment, home renovation and agricultural expenses.
However, a 2017 Unicef report, for example, found that the parents of migrant workers are often tasked with the burden of taking care of young grandchildren. The average age of the grandmothers Unicef interviewed was 62.4 years old, and most of them were illiterate and poor. Grandparents find it physically and mentally exhausting to raise the grandchildren, and suffer from health problems and feelings of being overwhelmed.
“The little one is so active; I can never leave her alone. I am worried she will fall into the water jar. I caught her climbing barbed wire fences. I am too old to watch her properly,” one grandmother was quoted as saying in the Unicef report.
In addition, the report further found that children who are left behind are more likely to drop out of school, especially girls. They have to contribute more to housework, chores, farm work or household income since their parents have migrated. Also, they tend to suffer from a range of negative emotional and psychological distress as a result of a disrupted relationship with their parents.
“When the children are one year old and their mother has to go back to Thailand, they cry. No one wants to go, but we are poor. They must go,” another grandmother said in the report.
The Philippines faces a similar challenge, as overseas migration is advanced and an increasing number of women have left the country. More burden is put on the female children to care for the family and manage the home. Older girls take on maternal roles in looking after their younger siblings.
“No matter her age at the time of her mother’s departure, it is the girl in the family who will take over managing the house and taking care of the other children,”Mai Anonuevo, executive director of Atikha, an NGO working with Filipino migrant workers, has said.
“She may have older brothers, but birth order doesn’t matter. The oldest girl among the children will take on the role of the mother,” she added.
While many are being left behind, some family members, especially spouses and older children, join migrant workers abroad.
Moeun Tola, executive director of labor rights NGO Central, has told media of his concern that migrant children brought along by their parents can face difficulties attending school or receiving services from the state.
Every year, an estimated 3,000-15,000 children are born in Thailand to migrant workers from Cambodia, Myanmar, and Laos. The lack of proper documentation, language barriers, unpredictable lengths of stay and necessity to earn an income hinder migrant children from accessing education and adequate health care.
Migrant workers who migrate illegally are often afraid of sending their children to schools. Dy Thehoya, a senior program officer at Central, has told media that more than 400,000 Cambodian workers are estimated to be working illegally in Thailand as of February 2021.
Children also face difficulties once they return to Cambodia. Some cannot speak Khmer well, while some cannot study in the same grade they studied in Thailand due to the different education curriculums, Chhim Phanna, a child protection specialist at Plan International Cambodia, has said.
Child labor is another concern for migrant children. The opportunity cost for children who are accompanying their parents overseas to attend school instead of working is high. The work can be labor intensive and dangerous — some 82 percent of male child laborers and 18 percent of female ones were found to be working at construction sites.
The pandemic has made migrant workers’ households more vulnerable.
The economic recession caused by the Covid-19 pandemic has worsened the financial stability of the migrant workers’ households. Business closures, lockdown, movement restriction, and the fear of arrest, detention, and deportation by the foreign authorities, have caused mass exodus of Cambodian migrant workers to return back home. Meanwhile, the majority of those who are stranded in Thailand, for instance, face unemployment.
Unemployment resulted in postponing remittances back home. It further restricted migrant workers’ families’ ability to pay back the debt and potentially led to new debt.
Food insecurity has also heightened during the pandemic. Migrant households have been found experiencing food insufficiency, which causes children to be more likely to have smaller portions of meals or borrow food from other households. School dropouts and domestic violence are also deemed to be increasing due to the pandemic.
More attention should be paid to migrant workers’ families. The Planning Ministry, in cooperation with relevant ministries and stakeholders, should conduct more studies and analyses on specific household surveys and migration indicators in order to establish effective policy designs.
The government should also expand the social protection coverage targeting poor and vulnerable families, and deploy more resources to identify and assist vulnerable children, especially those who are left behind. Affordable health care and education should be accessible to migrant workers’ families.
The Education Ministry should strengthen the monitoring and evaluation system for the numbers of school dropouts in rural areas. It is also necessary to employ a flexible education system that can facilitate returning migrants’ children back into school. The ministry should also consider providing vocational training programs, tutoring, or evening or part-time classes to older children who dropped out from school to work.
International organizations such as Unicef and U.N. Migration, NGOs and relevant stakeholders can provide social assistance and child protection support at the commune level. It is crucial that both the children and caregivers — grandparents, siblings, and relatives — are receiving not only technical support but also mental support as well. This can ensure children feel supported and further increase their school performance and reduce dropout rates.
Cambodia must pay closer attention to the lived experiences of migrant workers’ families in neighboring countries such as the Philippines. Their migration trajectories can be a lesson for us and for the future.
This Op-ed/Commentary has been funded by SIDA, OSI, and the Australian Government Department of Foreign Affairs and Trade through The Asia Foundation's Ponlok Chomnes: Data and Dialogue for Development in Cambodia. The views expressed in this article are solely those of the author and do not imply endorsement by Future Forum or its donors.