Phnom Penh municipality on Monday ordered a curb on vagrants entering the city and a roundup of beggars, homeless people and children selling items at traffic lights.
In the directive, signed by deputy city governor Seng Ratanak, City Hall orders the 12 district governors, its social affairs department and select NGOs to monitor and educate those rounded up and attempt to place them in vocational training institutes.
City Hall will “send expert officials to cooperate with Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant and other partner NGOs to monitor and round up street people, child beggars, newspaper sellers and flower sellers at [traffic] lights, with the aim of educating [them] to stop such activities,” says the statement, which was effective immediately.
The municipality has previously rounded up the city’s vagrants prior to major international events or diplomatic summits, holding them in state-run social affairs centers for days at a time.
Long Dimanche, spokesman for City Hall, said Monday that the project was targeted primarily at protecting women and children from the provinces who were being exploited on the streets of Phnom Penh. He said that the initial stage of the project was to create a database of those who were living on the streets, begging or selling small goods at traffic lights.
“Basically, we need to create a mechanism to help small children and women who are trafficked to beg on the streets,” Mr. Dimanche said.
“We need to send them to vocational training centers before integrating them back into society to start a new job to earn a living.”
Pin Sarapich, program director at Pour en Sourire d’Enfant, said that he was prepared for an influx of children in the coming month.
Mr. Sarapich said he had been negotiating with City Hall for two months on the project, and that his organization would not be “rounding up” anyone, but rather providing food, education and an option for training to any children without a parent or family to depend on.
“We will not be arresting anyone,” Mr. Sarapich said. “We will send volunteers to meet with children, to discuss where they come from and what their problems are.”
“We are not against children helping the family make revenue, we are against children being used as a tool to make money.”
But if the program aimed at children appears promising, the government was less forthcoming on details regarding treatment of adults.
Phnom Penh’s vocational training centers—particularly the Prey Speu Social Affairs Center in Pur Senchey district—have made headlines in the past for abuse by the very staff who were supposed to be teaching new skills to detainees.
Mr. Dimanche declined Monday to name the centers where the subjects of the new City Hall directive would receive vocational training.
Sou Heang, a 55-year-old who moved to Phnom Penh from Kandal 10 years ago and sells jasmine wreaths at traffic lights, is one of the many itinerant sellers who would not be eligible to be taken in by Pour Un Sourire d’Enfant.
Speaking between green lights Monday, she said that the threat of a City Hall “round up” was nothing new, and that people are ready to hide from authorities for fear of ending up in Prey Speu, where she has been detained three times.
“The last time I was rounded up was early this year. They sent me to Prey Speu Center where I was confined for one week,” she said. “It is bad at that shelter. If they conducted proper vocational training, we would not be back on the streets again.”
Run Chanthy, a 42-year-old from Svay Rieng province who begs with a two-year-old girl she claims was abandoned on the riverside last year, said she had also been sent to Prey Speu before and had no hopes of learning a skill there.
“If the government wants to help the poor, give us vocational training in practice, not on paper,” she said.
“Each time we are cleared from the streets, staff at the shelter say we give the city a bad appearance. They don’t give us skills, only insults.”
Local rights group Licadho, which monitors prisons and detentions centers, has in the past called for Phnom Penh’s social affairs centers to be closed down, citing reports of endemic human rights abuses.
Contacted Monday, Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, said that no one should be forced into a social affairs center against their will.
“We support the authorities for their efforts to help small children from being exploited and the perpetrators must be prosecuted,” Mr. Sam Ath said.
“But the round up should be conducted on a voluntarily basis and it is a must that no street people are confined against their will—that would be a human rights abuse.”
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