8:00 AM in Siem Reap, blue sky and 30 degrees. This is it. I finally arrived to one of the most touristic places on earth, the perfect gateway to the famous Angkor temple region and a paradise for Westerners like me.
But I am not here for tourism. I am a volunteer. Wait, I can already hear the critics: « So you are doing voluntourism? Working a week in an orphanage before going back to your confortable lifestyle? » and I wouldn’t blame them. Many socially-conscious travelers are now trying to live a more local experience and to make a difference in the communities they visit, and this is a commendable act. Except holiday volunteering has become a lucrative industry in Cambodia and tourism in unlicensed orphanages even made the headlines few years ago. Still today, it is not uncommon to see a stop at an orphanage or an english school in a poor village a part of your travel tour.
Now you understand why saying that you are a volunteer in Cambodia can have a negative connotation. But I am not just a volunteer. I am a EU Aid Volunteer and this is a big difference. I have been trained and certified by the European Union to support humanitarian aid projects and to reinforce the capacity and resilience of communities that have been hit by natural disasters, man-made crisis or that are simply struggling to remain self-sufficient because of poor local economy and harsh living conditions.
Not only I have been lucky enough to get into the EUAV initiative but I also had the privilege of being selected by GVC to support them in Cambodia on a migration project, which particularly appealed to me.
GVC has been present in Cambodia since 2004. Back then, they were helping rural communities to develop their livelihoods and to improve food security through agriculture trainings, construction of wells and water bassins and awareness sessions on malnutrition and hygiene. It became soon more and more difficult to find active participants for their projects since a lot of Cambodians started to leave their villages to find a better paid job abroad. Most of them were crossing the border into Thailand through irregular channels. In 2014, GVC decided to act to protect Cambodian migrants and to promote safe migration practices in vulnerable communities.
Today, one million Cambodian migrants live in Thailand and most of them are undocumented. They work in farms, plastic factories and construction companies in very difficult conditions and sometimes even being abused by their employers. Surprisingly, there are as much women workers as men, especially in the construction sector. They live with their families on the building sites, often facing harassment and violence from their male colleagues. Women often make the difficult choice to leave their children behind, and back in the villages, grandparents are sometimes taking care of up to five grandchildren with no financial nor social support.
Cambodians may also end up trafficked on Thai fishing boats, and their traumatic experience has been quite well reported in the media few years back. Although we don’t hear these tales of horror from the sea anymore, the issue didn’t disappear. In the contrary, it is more likely that boats sail far away from Thai waters, to avoid tougher measures imposed by the government in some efforts to curb illegal fishing.
In order to reduce human trafficking and labour exploitation, GVC and its partners are organizing so called Self-Help Groups where returned migrants can share their story, bad or good, with the rest of their community and where information on the legal procedure to follow to work in Thailand and on workers’ rights is being circulated. GVC is also doing advocacy to inform the local authorities both in Cambodia and in Thailand about the situation at the grass roots level and to encourage the actual implementation of the existing policies and plans on labour and migration.
In fact, GVC is one of the very few international organizations working on migration and human trafficking in Cambodia to be actively present in the field and I am very proud to be taking part in their activities, especially because coming from a European law enforcement and border management professional background, I was particularly eager to be involved on the other side of the border to help those who don’t have a choice but to leave their family, their house, their country to survive, for those who don’t know what equality, democracy or human rights mean.
I don’t have particular expectations. I came to observe, to learn and maybe to understand better what is humanitarian assistance about in a competitive and fast-paced changing world. For me this is the essence of volunteerism, taking the time to look, to listen, to be present in parts of our planet where more than ever, we need to act so people can regain dignity and stand up for themselves.
Marie Bracquemont, Senior EU Aid Volunteer in Communication, Cambodia