For Phorn Yen, leaving Cambodia was not really a choice.
Like so many of their compatriots, Yen and his wife left behind their children and hometown in Poipet to find a job in neighboring Thailand as the price of goods and services in Cambodia rapidly outpaced wages.
Yen wanted to save enough money to buy a modest home for his family, costing about $10,000 -- a vast sum considering the average annual household income when the family left in 2013 was about $850.
The couple were able to save about $600 per month to send home, but the challenges of working abroad took their toll. Yen and his wife returned to Poipet earlier this year, but since they returned neither have been able to find work.
“I have no idea what I should do for work now,” he said. “I’m clueless. Farming is not an option as the climate is not productive for agriculture. I considered fishing, but it’s not profitable either.”
Since 2005, millions of Cambodians have made the same journey, often from deprived neighborhoods and villages where employment and farming opportunities have dried up. Young Cambodians are also increasingly looking far afield for independence and new opportunities.
Many Cambodians who travel overseas for work do so illegally, while the government facilitates some of the economic migration to Thailand and other countries. But even legal economic migration is plagued by accounts of exploitation by unscrupulous brokers and foreign firms.
Since the Cambodian labor movement won concessions from the government after at least five people were killed by security forces in violent factory strikes in 2014, the minimum wage for garment workers has risen to $170 per month. But the wage rises have not kept pace with rising living costs, experts say.
Sok Heng, 32, a Cambodian garment worker who made the move to Thailand in 2014, said conditions and wages were considerably better than what was on offer in Kampong Cham province, where she previously worked.
“If my wages increased, so did the cost of rent,” she says. “It’s different in Thailand. Expenses do not increase when the wages increase.”
But despite the improvements Heng says she still does not earn enough money to support her family back home.
Heng says she did not want to leave her hometown and would like to return if wages and conditions were improved. “I’m so exhausted. I am homesick. It’s not like our country. We are far away from our family. It’s good to live with our family, even if we are hungry, we live happily. But if I was at home, I don’t know what I would do [for work],” she says.
Yon Chomnab, 30, a former migrant worker in Korea who now drives a taxi, said setting clear savings goals for himself helped with the time away from home and allowed him to focus on his plan to set up his own small business on his return.
“After you finish working there, what do you do next? How much money can you save? We should manage our money properly. If not, when we arrive in [the country to work] we will forget that we went there to work and just spend extravagantly,” he said. “There’s a risk that you will come back empty handed.”
The average monthly salary of a migrant worker in Thailand is $163 and $137 in Malaysia, according to the International Labor Organization (ILO). Experts suggest that the practice has short-term benefits for many workers, but carries considerable risks as much of the migration is unregulated,
Most migrant workers will be unemployed on their return to their home country because of a lack of job opportunities and programs to get people back into work.
Moeun Tola, executive director of the Center for Labor Protection and Human Rights (Central), said more than two million Cambodians were migrant workers, mostly working in uncredentialed jobs. “These migrant workers must be repatriated to their home country before a deadline. They can’t work there forever. So once they [foreign companies] stop recruiting workers, we will encounter a serious issue,” he said.
“There will be many unemployed people. The government ought to respond to this issue. If not, those unemployed people will soon start to steal or rob in order to feed themselves, which will place a burden on society as a whole.”
Eight in ten Cambodian migrant workers experience rights abuses while overseas, according to the ILO and International Organization for Migration (IOM). About 70 percent also suffer from physical and mental health problems after their arrival.
Ngeth Chou, an economist, said most migrants do not improve their skills while overseas, meaning that after their return they are no more employable than when they left. More elderly Cambodians are entrusted with the care of their children while the parents are abroad and more young adults are forced to leave education early as a result of economic migration, Chou said.
“I do not consider [unskilled economic migration] as a long-term benefit, rather it is a short-term solution.”
“I have serious concerns about this issue since we are in a competitive market. Furthermore, we are not really good at producing and our human resources are assisting the economy of a foreign country; there is little chance for us to benefit from the competition.”
According to the ILO, only about one in 20 Cambodians find work overseas that matches their skills, as migrant workers are hired to meet the requirements of low-wage industries that are not attractive to the local population.
But Heng Sour, a labor ministry spokesman, said overall economic migration was a long-term benefit to Cambodia. “Migrant workers earn a higher income and obtain new working experiences,” he said, adding that the government was working on improving the situation for returning migrants.
“First we ought to have a system of protections for our fellow migrant workers who are overseas illegally. Second, if they are being repatriated, we should provide them with information so they can consider which jobs they can pursue and we also have to certify their overseas work skills and experience,” he said.
A large-scale government scheme over the past several years has seen hundreds of thousands of Cambodians registered as migrant workers after Thailand forcibly repatriated tens of thousands of undocumented migrant workers since 2014.
Some 1,000 Cambodians have been rescued by the authorities from abusive conditions in recent years.
Tola of Central said the government’s measures did not go far enough.
“The government should come up with measures to prevent economic migration. The government should strengthen the labor market by setting wages and providing land as concessions to citizens to promote agriculture,” he said.
“When we implement this kind of action, we will be able to prevent migration and provide workers' jobs domestically. If they cannot find a job in Cambodia, they will have to leave and find another job.”
Such sentiment is popular with Cambodia’s migrant workforce.
“I want the government to offer more jobs to the people so I do not always have to leave and work abroad,” said Yen. “In foreign countries, no matter how old you are, you can always find a job, unlike in Cambodia, where there is no work. I want that and I don’t want to work abroad,” he said.