Thai Border on Alert as Imported Covid-19 Cases Rise

Health authorities have announced a rise in imported Covid-19 cases as Cambodian police say they are increasingly concerned about illegal crossings to and from Thailand amid pressures on people’s livelihoods.

In the first week of June, Cambodia recorded 195 imported Covid-19 cases out of 4,117 total, or about 5 percent.

In its latest situation report from the end of May, the World Health Organization said the rate of imported cases was the highest since the start of the pandemic. “Imported cases are increasing due to importations from Thailand,” it said.

Thailand, like Cambodia, has seen a surge in Covid-19 cases over the past two months. At the end of March, it had roughly 30,000 total cases. By the end of May, it had more than 177,000. Deaths also rose from about 100 to more than 1,200 during that span.

On June 4, the Cambodian Health Ministry said three workers returning from Thailand had tested positive for the B.1.617 Indian Covid-19 variant. Previous cases in Cambodia’s “February 20” cluster have been identified as the B.1.1.7 U.K. variant. Recent Covid-19 variants have generally been more easily transmitted than the original virus.

National Police spokesperson Chhay Kim Khoeun said on Monday that Cambodians had been crossing to and from Thailand through forests and streams to evade border police.

Thailand’s strong labor market and Cambodians’ livelihood struggles amid Covid-19 were driving the continued migration to the neighboring country, Kim Khoeun said.

Smuggling networks were trafficking people across the border for a fee, but they can be hazardous for the migrant laborers, he said.

“We are all worried. Not just worried — we are very worried. And [we] try to prevent it, and my forces at the front line have faced challenges,” Kim Khoeun said. “The first challenge is the fear of not being able to perform the task sufficiently, [so] there might be crossings back and forth that bring a new virus in. Second, sometimes they could get infected themselves while trying to enforce the law.”

Crossings had been restricted by the two countries, and there were only about 40 official crossings on average a day, he said. But he did not know the number of illegal crossings, or how many illegal migrants had been arrested in Thailand, he said.

Dy Thehoya, a program officer at labor rights group Central, said Thai authorities were tightening enforcement and there had been a resurgence of arrests for illegal crossings.

Twelve Cambodian workers were arrested at the end of May in Thailand’s Sa Kaeo province and face up to two years in jail; another 17 workers, including seven women, were arrested on June 5 and sent back to Cambodia, Thehoya said.

Overall, more than 500 Cambodian workers had been arrested and fined in the first six months of the year, facing a fine of up to 40,000 baht, or about $1,281, if they’re caught by Thai authorities, under the country’s stricter penalties during the pandemic.

Migrant workers faced fraud and Covid-19 infection by illegally crossing the border, but many struggled to find work at home and were in debt, Thehoya said. Brokers charge about 3,000 to 4,000 baht, about $100 to $130, per worker to smuggle them over the border.

Central has previously estimated that more than 1.8 million Cambodian workers are working legally and illegally in Thailand.