As stated in the IOM-UN Migration official information for the International Migrants Day, to be commemorated this December 18th 2020, throughout human history migration has been a courageous expression of the individual’s will to overcome adversity and to live a better life.

These photos were taken in Prey Pnov and Prey Sla communes, in Prey Veng province, as a visual documentation of the challenges migrants are facing due to the Covid-19 pandemic and the consequent need to return back to their homes in Cambodia. But more than that, these pictures aim to be a celebration of movement and the natural human desire for self-actualization, a promotion of co-development within Southeast Asian nations by supporting its people to move freely and stand stronger as one unified community.

This series is not only a way to give voice to migrants and make them feel seen, these are their stories of returning home, of their resilience and will to get back to their lives after the pandemic ends. It’s time to re-imagining human mobility and its impact on uplifting more lives while helping the countries to grow together.

Vat Cheoun, 9 years in Thailand, came back September.

Used to be one of the 723.911 Cambodian nationals who were granted the right to reside in Thailand, the most common destination for the one million Cambodians who migrated abroad in search for jobs and a better life (an estimation by the United Nations Department of Economic and Social Affairs). Since he lost his job abroad in the fishing industry has been farming rice in a small plot of land from his family, waiting to see how the situation will evolve after 2020.

From all the interviews with Cambodian migrants who returned from Thailand, 95% express that not being able to find a job back home is their main concern. Almost 4 in 10 households have no income since they came back. With families to feed, only the ones fortunate enough to own property back in their home village have been able to bounce back and go through this pandemic with a safety net.

Another victim of this Covid-19 crisis, children have been struggling in terms of education with schools closing and the government investing instead on online teaching. But for the most impoverished families who can’t afford a smartphone or pay for mobile data every week, accessing the classes and motivate kids to keep studying has been a major challenge. Fortunately in Prey Pnov village there is a teacher who comes every week to some homes, in order to teach students in an improvised classroom on the ground floor of a typical Cambodian house.

With families already struggling to provide a better future for their children, having them at home due to the schools’ shutdown is making even harder to go out in search for jobs. The Covid-19 pandemic is a major setback on migrant families dream of providing a better education – and a normal childhood – to their loved ones.

Mr. Lorn, IOM-UN Migration provincial coordinator in Prey Veng, raising awareness with local families about safety measures against the transmission of the corona-virus. The UN Migration department and their partners have been implementing a crucial outreach program in the resettlement of returnees and supporting the government’s pandemic response.

Covid-19 information materials and soap being donated by the International Organization for Migration in local villages as part of their Covid-19 response program in Prey Veng province. IOM has been providing livelihood recovery, food support, WASH awareness and shelter assistance in the provinces that have been receiving most migrants, including Battambang, Siem Reap, Banteay Meanchey, Prey Veng and Oddar Meanchey.

Yuk Sokha, 10 years in Thailand, came back August.

Used to be a clothes seller but since she returned has been staying at home taking care of the kids and unable to find a job, surviving through the money her husband sends back from working as a fisherman. A common desire for 71% of returnees, she wants to go back as soon as the pandemic finishes since there are no opportunities back home, once again leaving her kids behind with her parents.

Ren Thea, 4 years in Thailand, came back September.

Used to work in a food factory and wants to go back and work as a seller, now jobless and staying at home taking care of her three kids while her husband works in the Malay fishing industry. “I’m feeling stuck here because of the Covid-19 situation, like in a trap, not knowing what to do next.”

Sreyneang, 6 years in Thailand, came back September.

Used to work in a food factory in order to feed her five year old daughter. Would like to remain in Cambodia if she had money to start her own business. “I dream of starting my own grocery shop but can’t see any opportunities with this pandemic.”

Phan Sokleap, 3 years in Thailand, came back September.

Used to have a job in a food factory while her husband works in Malaysia, now staying at home taking care of her baby. “I’m so afraid of catching corona-virus, in the factory I used to work there were many washing stations, here I need to be so careful on my own.”

Soung Tha, 5 years in Thailand, came back November.

“There I used to receive $10 per day but if I couldn’t work one day I will not receive, for instance if I got sick. And the cost of living there is so expensive.” The life of a migrant is often a risky game where one lives day by day without a safety net. How can we re-think the cooperation between different countries within the ASEAN community in terms of social services, access to health and dignified working conditions?

Bunheng, 5 years in Malaysia, came back November.

Used to work as a fisherman and will like to go back if he can’t find any job back home. But in the past he worked as a carpenter in Phnom Penh, his dream is to open his own furniture shop in Cambodia so he doesn’t have to go abroad in search for work. Migration exists because we all have the need to survive. And often, if done through safe channels and with the right support, can serve as a crucial tool to help families break from the poverty cycle and create conditions to support themselves and the generations to come.

On Rach, 1 year in Malaysia, came back November.

Used to work in fisheries but due to losing his job and the uncertainty for the future decided to return to his family. He self-quarantined at home for two weeks, receiving food donations from IOM in the meantime to release the pressure from food insecurity and allowing him to comply with the safety rules of not leaving home.

The process of coming back to the country has been following appropriate safety rules with quarantine at school facilities, during the time the education system was on a hiatus, or at home. Families responsibly stayed apart during the fourteen days of self-isolation the returnee had to go through. For instance this family, where the son quarantined downstairs on an improvised room in the usually open-air ground floor of Khmer traditional houses, while the parents, who never left their home village, lived on the first floor waiting for the time when it was safe to spend time together again. Even meals were taken separately, and medical staff came for check-up visits until it was time to take the final test at the local health center.

Hay Saren, 1 year in Malaysia, came back October.

Used to work in the fishing industry while his mother stayed alone in their home village in Prey Veng, due to his father being a migrant worker in Thailand. That’s why he decided to come back to visit her since she was nervous about the virus outbreaks in Malaysia, despite understanding that working in the ocean was probably less likely to be infected than living in a big city. “I still don’t know what I’m gonna do, I’m just waiting for the Covid-19 situation to be over to think about the future.”

Yea Naren & Sok Chean, 8 years in Thailand, came back November.

Working as a cleaning lady in a hospital and a fisherman for many years, this couple migrated and came back together, with the time abroad allowing them to save enough money to build their own house in the meantime. A success story of how migration can improve people’s lives, now they are looking to earn a bit more to afford a fence for their land. “It’s something to be happy and proud for. I feel safer to have my own home for my kids to grow up in.” In fact, their village in Prey Veng province is filled with well-built houses made with migrants’ remittances, helping to develop some of the most remote areas in Cambodian countryside.

Savat, 5 years in Thailand, came back November.

Migration is often a temporary solution to increase savings and enable a future life back home, ending up improving economic and social conditions at both origin and destination. “I’m a vegetable seller in Thailand. At home is hard to find work and the whole family is dependent on just a small plot of land for rice farming. I want to go back to earn some more money to open a business back in Cambodia. Maybe in two years I will be able to do it, then I will not need to migrate again.”

Sreun Seng, 12 years in Thailand, came back November.

Used to work in a rubber factory, despite not being able to speak or understand Thai language. Although it was hard to communicate or access information, she always felt well received and made many friends even if only interacting with them through pointing at objects or body language. In terms of communication, other common issue is the lack of smartphone in the most impoverished families, fundamental tool for access to information on Covid-19 safety measures, recent outbreaks or guidelines from the health authorities

Than Thida, 8 years in Thailand, came back November.

Migrated with her parents when she was only 13 years old, after finishing the 5th grade back in her home village. While abroad couldn’t access education, and for many years couldn’t work as well due to her young age. In fact, 57% of the interviewed migrants only completed primary education, with another 10% never attending any school. What if migrant kids had access to education in the host country, as a tool to promote their integration and future contribution to the economy?

122.226, the number of Cambodian migrant workers who have crossed the border from Thailand to Cambodia since March until beginning of December 2020. With Thailand having to respond to their Covid-19 outbreak with lockdowns and increased safety measures, its economy suffered a major hit and employment opportunities dramatically dropped. Being some of the most fragile communities there, Cambodian migrants had to flock back home in fear of getting infected or unable to find a new job amidst this uncertain period.

Mrs. Rachana, communications officer from IOM-UN Migration, interviewing local families in Prey Sla commune in Prey Veng province. It’s crucial to understand the challenges of returnee families towards a smoother reintegration in their Cambodian homes. How to provide better social services or to understand the impact of discrimination they might face by locals, who might see them as carriers of the virus. For instance apart from the difficulty to find a job back home, 32% of returning migrants stated mental and psychosocial health issues as their second main concern during this period. How can we work together to promote a more inclusive society, one that sees migrants as an essential piece to a post-Covid rapid economic recovery?

Almost 4 out of 10 Cambodian migrants have debts to repay, tainting their present situation during this crisis and their future with one more uncertainty. The payment to private recruitment agencies – around $300 to $350 per person and often through informal and unsafe channels – can be a burden to the family in case they didn’t make enough money to pay back. And in certain cases, especially in the construction sector which comprises 40% of the Cambodian migrants in Thailand, being an undocumented migrant can lead to exploitation and unpaid labor with no legal resources to turn to. How can we re-imagine human migration in a safer way for workers while acknowledging their important contribute to the economies of both host and home countries?

Phan A., 9 months in Malaysia, came back November.

Used to work as a fisherman and enjoyed the working environment with people from various nationalities. Besides the economic benefits of migration, a world where people are allowed to move is prone to create a more diverse and empathetic context where we see each other as all part of the human family. “What I remember the most from my time there is that I made good friends. We used to share good food after work and enjoy it together.”

Nut Pheap, 15 years in Thailand, came back November.

Previously worked as a fisherman and later as a gardener receiving $250 per month, a salary that would be hard to get back home with his qualifications. He hopes one day to be able to plant seeds back in his home country Cambodia.

Kouch Oy, 4 years in Thailand, came back November.

Returning to her home in Prey Sla, Prey Veng province, and waiting for this health crisis to get better, this is a time of reflection and re-planning. Kouch Oy, one of the more than 100 thousand migrants who had to come back from Thailand due to Covid-19, is praying to get back to her life. Like many others, wishing for a better life for herself and her family, a way to support her children’s education and future, her dream of sustainability and grow. And mobility is part of it.