Sitting on the ground in a black rain jacket, homeless day laborer Chhun Tha was uneasy answering officials’ questions Wednesday—the day the Phnom Penh Municipality began its first census of beggars and street people.
“Have police come with you?” Chhun Tha, 34, asked one surveyor on Sisowath Quay. “Because I am really afraid of being arrested.”
It was a common response, despite repeated reassurances from various officials that no one would be arrested during the two-day census.
Interviews for the census, which ends today, targeted street children and sought to address the migration of beggars from the countryside to the capital. Interviewers canvassed every commune, networking through local officials in order to find and speak to as many street people as possible. The information will eventually help determine causes of homelessness and begging, and be used to develop strategies to keep people off the streets, said Khun Sear, municipal vice governor.
Chhun Tha, who has been living on the streets for nearly two decades, said he had good reason to worry. He recounted being arrested shortly before last November’s Water Festival and sent to a government-run detention center in Phnom Penh for two months.
“I was locked in a small building with more than 60 other street people and beggars. I was given a small amount of rice and dried salted radish once a day,” he said. “We were not allowed to get out of the room, so we urinated and released human waste into plastic bags.”
Others described similar fears and experiences.
“At first I feared talking to those officials, because we thought they might be police officers wearing civilian uniforms, disguised…to catch us,” said Uk Cha, 59, a homeless woman who came from Svay Rieng province’s Svay Chrum district more than ten years ago.
She said she was held at a government-run detention center in Phnom Penh last year—locked in a dark room and never given promised skills training. She escaped after bribing a guard with $13, she said.
San Saravuth, director of Public Order for Phsar Kandal I commune in Daun Penh district, said most of the 10 homeless families in his commune were apprehensive about the census. Eventually, he said, they were convinced to talk.
“Those homeless people cooperated with us after we told them we only need to collect real statistics of beggars and homeless persons in the city,” San Saravuth said.
The NGOs Friends International and Save the Children Norway were on hand to monitor the census takers. Friends sent a team of about 20 people, and reported that despite street people’s concerns, surveying went as planned.
“It basically went exactly as the municipality said it would,” said Sebastien Marot, international coordinator for Friends International. “There was no problem whatsoever…We are quite satisfied with what we have seen.”