The Cambodian Exodus

Hey friends - You may have seen me posting about the astounding events of the past few days on Twitter, Instagram, or Facebook. Andrew shares more about what he's seen and how Samaritan's Purse is meeting the needs of the Cambodians returning from Thailand. - whitney

In my three years in Cambodia, I've never seen anything like it.

I am working at the Samaritan's Purse distribution point set up at the Thai-Cambodian border in Poipet to provide food and water to the 100,000+ Cambodians returning home. I think about how Moses led the Israelites out of Egypt and imagine it felt similar to this: a chaotic mess of traffic mixed in with thousands of people flooding the streets, bringing only whatever belongings they can carry in their hands.

Around 400,000 Cambodians work in Thailand, seeking better economic futures than their home can offer them. However, many cannot afford the documents to migrate legally, and a large percentage are present in Thailand illegally, without passports or work permits. One of Samaritan's Purse Cambodia's largest projects is Safe Migration and Trafficking Awareness (SMTA), working to equip and educate Cambodians to migrate for work legally and know if they are in a potential trafficking situation.

On Wednesday, the SMTA staff were alerted than thousands of Cambodians were returning from Thailand via Poipet, the border town where the SMTA project is located. Staff left their yearly retreat early to return to Poipet and assess the situation. They found the border teeming with people as trucks arrived at the border continually, full of returning migrant workers.

SP staff found that many of the workers had no food or water, or money to buy either. They had fled their homes in Thailand when they heard the Thai military junta, currently ruling the country under martial law, had decided to crack down on illegal workers. Rumors of violence fueled their fear, and the trickle of workers crossing the border - normally around 150 per day - snowballed into a current high of 45,000 workers on Saturday, June 14. We have seen just under half are women and children.

The SMTA staff set up tents to shelter the workers from the monsoon rains and began handing out emergency food and water packets, and trafficking awareness brochures. They were joined by other non-government organizations and by SP community volunteers. They also handed out hygiene kits with toothbrushes and wet wipes - a critical need when workers have already been traveling for days with no access to clean water or toilets.

Here in Poipet we are seeing thousands of men, women, and children shipped around like cattle. Many have already traveled a couple of days to get to the border and have even slept overnight on the Thai side, waiting to cross over.

On Saturday, I planned to work at the distribution site from 2-10pm, and ended up working with our staff until 1am. Trucks, vans, and buses kept coming - about 300 per day. The total number of people crossing back into Cambodia is tens of thousands per day, much faster than they can leave the border area.  Here they are waiting, sometimes all day in the hot sun with little or no shelter.

As soon as the trucks stopped, the people were helped off and brought through our distribution line for food and water. Once through the line, the hard part was figuring out where to go next. The Cambodian military has brought fleets of transport trucks to Poipet, taking people back to their home provinces. They are now even using dump trucks to transport people. But Cambodians needing transportation far outnumbers the available resources. 

When I left that night, thousands were left at the border with nowhere to go, hungry and exhausted. Some found a piece of wood pallet to lie down on, others a cardboard box. There are needs for more temporary shelters, mosquito nets, hygiene kits, and portable toilets.

But there were many positive things in the response - hundreds of volunteers showed up to help distribute food and water. Many of them were from local Poipet business and churches. It was awesome to see the community come together to help these people out in a difficult situation. The SP staff are all eagerly working long hours with joyful smiles.

I hope the Cambodians are able to find a place to go home to. It is going to be hard for this many people to find work, as that was the reason they left Cambodia in the first place. They will return to villages already burdened with poverty and lack of jobs. I already heard some discussing when they might be able to return to Thailand for work, knowing all too well what awaits them back home. 

Please pray for the Cambodians, that their needs for shelter, food, and safety would be met; that our staff would be able to maintain energy and focus during long days; and that God would use this mass exodus to share Jesus with them and to rebuild Cambodia.