Rural Poor Flock to Cities

Posted by khmernews on June 14, 2007

By Melinda Marshall
The Phnom Penh Post

 Money talks, as they say, and it talks loudest to those who have none. The illusory lure of an easy buck is calling to the rural poor, who are rallying to Cambodia’s urban centers in growing numbers, researchers and NGOs say.
The brave, the ambitious and the desperate are packing their dreams on to motorbikes and into crowded minibuses and following money’s gilded path to Battambang, Siem Reap, and above all, Phnom Penh.

The trends that migration expert Bruno Maltoni is seeing throughout Cambodia have convinced him that Phnom Penh and the other cities are on the brink of a migration boom. And it is unlikely that existing infrastructures and social programs can cope adequately with the influx.

“There will be an increase of the slum areas, and a huge increase of the informal economy. There will be a huge reservoir of a very cheap workforce in the city, “Maltoni told the Post.

“Phnom Penh is a small city, so it can’t afford to absorb too many migrants. Already there are too many migrants in Phnom Penh.”

One of the biggest push factors from the countryside is the increase in landless rural families. A cruel cycle of poverty, misfortune, and debt- especially healthcare debt- is costing families their land and livelihood, said Maltoni, a Royal University of Phnom Penh sociologist and adviser to the International Organization for Migration and the World Bank.

About 50 percent of rural people aged 70 or more were still working at the last census in 1998. The figure was about 30 percent in the cities. In some cases, those too frail to work are forced to languish on the streets.

The report also found that NGO and government projects tended to exclude older people from their plans, neglecting to take advantage of their traditional role as decision-makers and organization.

Similarly, the few projects aimed at helping older people must struggle to attract funding.

Keo Chantha, founder of the Cambodian Elder Support Organization (CESO), believes his NGO and the Thailand-based Help Age are the only groups to address issues facing elderly Khmers. Although CESO receives $30,000 a year from the Canadian Ratanak Foundation, Chantha said the NGO has been refused funding by numerous local and international organizations.

To maintain the Canadians’ interest, CESO spreads itself thin, running sewing and irrigation projects throughout the country as well as providing specific aid to the elderly. Only one third of its budget goes directly to elderly people- to feeding and clothing them, providing blankets, medical treatment, and morning exercise programs.

Chantha said donors and NGOs are more concerned with helping children than older people.

“The think it should be left to society to look after the elderly,” he said.

Chantha has appeared on Cambodian TV and radio calling for the government to provide a retirement pension.
Pensions are not unheard of Government employees and veterans receive them, as do some lucky staff of private companies.

Vannath thinks the call for a universal pension is unrealistic, but when pressed on the matter, said the government should “at least provide free meals to the elderly.”

She considers retirement funding for able-bodied people like Sorn unworthy of debate. She feels that pensions should only be considered for the large number of senior citizens who are too frail to work.

“The picture that I have is the ones who cannot work to support themselves,” she said.

In Vannath’s view, expecting the current government to take full responsibility for the welfare of the elderly is unrealistic.

“At the moment to call on the government to do all of that is like asking for help in the Amazon rainforest [and expecting] somebody to hear you, “she said.

She does not see her stance as hard, just “pragmatic,” she said.

After all, many children, neighbors and relatives have the power to help the elderly people in their lives “right away, today, now” she says.

Back at the coconut cart, Sorn speaks proudly of her hard-working son Odom, 18.

A secondary school student, generation, elderly people have few support networks.

About 50 percent of rural people aged 70 or more were still working at the last census in 1998. The figure was about 30 percent in the cities. In some cases, those too frail to work are forced to languish on the streets.

At the last census, only 3.5 percent of people were aged 65 and above. Experts say that the plight of this minority tends to be over looked by the government, NGOs and the general public.

In 1998, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Labor and Veterans Affairs released a collaborative study with NGO Help Age International that predicted the number of people over 60 would swell to 6.6 percent in 2020- an increase of a vulnerable social group that the country is ill-equipped to manage.

-The Phnom Penh Post: Volume 15, Number 2 January 27 to February 9, 2006 “ Rural poor flock to cities.”


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