There is a festive feeling in the air as Phnom Penh prepares to celebrate Independence Day on Sunday and the Water Festival throughout next week.
But beneath the colorful flags that adorn the street lamps along the riverfront are dozens of street children and their homeless parents, who are again being targeted for festival-time detention.
Each year before the festival, authorities round up the homeless in the tourist centers of Phnom Penh and take them to state-run shelters. Unsurprisingly, many of them would rather live on the streets.
Kuon Koy, a 45-year-old woman who was sent with her small gaggle of children to a center in Dangkao district’s Chom Chao commune after they were detained in 2006, said street conditions were better.
Run by the Phnom Penh Municipal Social Affairs Department, the Chom Chao center was “like prison without walls,” Kuon Koy said as she sat with three of her six children on the sidewalk across the street from the National Museum.
Kuon Koy said she preferred her current living conditions over Chom Chao, where the temporarily detained slept without mosquito nets and ate a mixture of soup and rice that tasted “like pig’s food.”
The Chom Chao center is one of two centers run by the department to provide shelter for homeless persons who “voluntarily” stay there. The other center is located on Koh Kor Island in Sa’ang district in Kandal province.
Local rights group Licadho, however, said the centers are unlawfully used as detention centers, where homeless people are brought after they are plucked from the streets. “Unfortunately it has become normal for authorities to unlawfully detain people on the street for the Water Festival and other major holidays,” said Jason Barber, a consultant with Licadho.
Licadho has called for the government to shut down the centers after the group conducted an investigation in June that discovered people locked in rooms living in filthy conditions against their will.
“We have been working for these centers to be closed down because they’re unlawful detention sites,” Barber said by phone Thursday.
While he said most of the people kept in these centers were released months ago, he is worried that as the Water Festival approaches, they will be brought back into use.
The Municipal Social Affairs Department said it has learned its lesson when it comes to the homeless.
“Our centers can only accept drug addicts who are under 15 years old to re-educate them in our centers,” said director Sorn Sophal.
About 40 homeless people collected Monday from the streets of Daun Penh district were turned away by the municipal department of social affairs, Deputy District Governor Pich Socheata said.
When police officers asked the department to take the homeless people, they were refused entry because the department said they only take people on a voluntary basis, Pich Socheata said.
Sweeping the homeless from the streets is an annual event, just like the Water Festival, she said.
“If we did not collect them to keep them in [centers], festival-goers will lose their belongings,” she said. “Many homeless people and beggars on the streets do stealing and pickpocketing,” she added.