More than 100 Cambodian migrant workers returned home on June 16 after being stranded in Malaysia for months amid the Covid-19 outbreak.
Malaysian Airlines flight MH 762 landed on the evening of June 16 at Phnom Penh International Airport carrying 115 migrant workers who had been stuck abroad since April, most without work and unable to afford rent and food.
Prime Minister Hun Sen announced on April 7 that the government had decided to ban travel from Malaysia after dozens of cases of Covid-19 were discovered in Cambodia among a group of locals who had traveled to attend a large Islamic festival in Kuala Lumpur in March.
According to a statement from the Foreign Affairs Ministry, the 104 Cambodian migrant workers who remained in Malaysia have decided to stay in order to seek further employment.
Tuloh Saith, a 38-year-old Cambodian construction worker, said from the check-in counter at Kuala Lumpur International Airport that he was delighted to return home after months of uncertainty in Malaysia.
“I am very happy that I can return to my homeland, and I thank the embassy officials who have arranged this flight for us,” he said.
However, Saith said that although the Cambodian Embassy in Malaysia had arranged the flight, they did not cover the ticket cost.
“We have had to pay ourselves for a 1,000 ringgit [$230] air ticket to return home,” Saith said, adding that he also had to cover his own food costs, which amounted to about 30 ringgit ($7) per day.
Saith said the situation had become dire for his family and the other stranded workers as their unemployment dragged on for months.
“We had no work because they didn’t allow us to go outside,” he said. “We just ate, slept and did some exercise around the house.”
“They told us that upon arriving in Cambodia, we have to undergo a mandatory 14-day quarantine and testing for Covid-19, and if the result is negative they will allow us to self-quarantine at home,” he said.
Saith was among a group of Cambodians waiting at Kuala Lumpur International Airport on April 7 when the government made the decision to ban flights from Malaysia. Alongside 150 other Cambodians, Saith was stranded amid the looming global health and economic crisis.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Alliance of Labor and Human Rights (Central) said on June 16 that the government had not done enough to support the returning workers.
“I think it is not suitable to require them to pay for flight tickets because the state has prevented their return, so they should pay instead,” he said.
“We are also disappointed that the government has failed to provide them with a food allowance while they were stuck in Malaysia,” Tola added. He said he had seen on social media Cambodian Embassy officials had provided food and water on at least one occasion, but only after the workers’ stories had been broadcast by the media.
Also on June 16, the Foreign Affairs Ministry issued a statement defending the government’s treatment of overseas workers during the Covid-19 outbreak, saying they had provided sufficient assistance.
According to the statement, by the end of May, Cambodian embassies have provided surgical masks, disinfectant, food and monetary assistance to 20,000 students and laborers in countries including Egypt, Japan, Malaysia, Singapore, South Korea, Thailand and Vietnam.
On June 9, the State Secretariat of Civil Aviation released a statement saying that upon arriving in the Kingdom, all travelers—Cambodia and foreign nationals alike—would be immediately escorted to a designated Covid-19 center for an initial test, where they will stay for up to 24 hours while awaiting their their results before being allowed to enter the country.
“In the event that one taveler tests positive for Covid-19, all travelers from the same flight will be subject to a 14-day quarantine at a designated location,” the statement said. It also said that if all passengers on a given flight test negative for Covid-19, they will still be required to complete a 14-day self-quarantine at a location of their choice.