A controversial Phnom Penh social affairs shelter is set to expand as part of a municipal initiative to round up beggars and homeless people from the streets, Prampi Makara district’s deputy governor said Tuesday.
After a meeting with officials from the municipality and its districts to discuss the capital’s homeless, Som Sovann said that City Hall has decided to construct a new building at Prey Speu shelter in Dangkao district and will immediately begin rounding up beggars to send to existing facilities.
“We will arrange the city to be better. Begging affects the honor of our country,” Mr Sovann said. “When they stay in the center they will develop skills, and when they leave the center they can do something to support their lives.”
He added that no one will be forced to stay at Prey Speu—those who want to leave will be allowed to move back to the provinces, and the city will provide them with funds to start businesses.
Mr Sovann said that municipal authorities would immediately begin collecting beggars who target tourists, and further roundups will be delayed until completion of the annex at Prey Speu, which will be able to house approximately 100 residents.
In 2008, human rights group Licadho complained to the Ministry of Interior about conditions at Prey Speu. Former detainees told the group that staff members held them there against their will, and that some residents were beaten, raped and even murdered.
Licadho consultant Jason Barber was not pleased to hear that Prey Speu would be expanded.
“That’s very bad news,” he said by telephone Tuesday. “The center has a long history of unlawful detention of homeless people and others, and if the authorities don’t acknowledge that and have proper investigations into the abuses that occurred there, then it is very likely that similar abuses will occur again in the future.”
Licadho representatives visited the center last week, Mr Barber said, and as a member of the delegation, he saw at least two staff members implicated in Licadho’s allegations.
He also claimed that residents at Prey Speu are treated as prisoners, although they have committed no crimes.
“Officially, people are staying there voluntarily, but we believe that at least some, if not most, of those people have been coerced to stay there, including by threats of physical violence against them if they leave the center and they’re rearrested,” Mr Barber said.
Ministry of Interior spokesman Lieutenant General Khieu Sopheak could not be reached for comment Tuesday.
However, Phnom Penh’s Director for the Department of Social Affairs Son Sophal said Tuesday that Licadho’s allegations were groundless, and denied that residents were forcefully held. “It is not true. We do not do anything to violate human rights.”
He added that he was pleased by the news that the center would be expanded. At present, he said, it houses about 200 homeless people, and can hold a maximum of about 300.
“It is good for them to live in the center, because it has enough food for them to eat,” Mr Sophal said.
Phnom Penh Municipal Governor Kep Chuktema, who chaired the meeting, could not be reached for comment Wednesday. Deputy Governor Pa Socheatvong declined to comment.