The Council of Ministers is scheduled to vote today on a new plan setting the rules for the relocation of people from urban settlements deemed illegal in towns across the nation.
The draft “Guideline Circular on Settlement of Illegal Temporary Buildings in Cities and Urban Areas” will take effect as soon as Prime Minister Hun Sen signs it.
Foreign donors and housing-rights groups have questioned what they say are ambiguities concerning the rights such communities will have and an apparent presumption that all such communities are illegal.
The plan calls on local authorities to survey all illegal temporary housing within their areas. The government is then to consult with community representatives and NGOs to arrive at a resolution: on-site housing upgrades, relocation if this is not possible, or eviction and compensation “in cash or materials as necessary.”
Renters would be entitled to nothing, according to the relocation plan.
Those in upgraded or relocated sites would get either the “right to use” the site—without receiving an actual land title—or a “right of ownership” if they show “a will to own” in a minimum period of 20 years.
The plan also requires the government to develop such sites with the necessary infrastructure and utilities for habitation—including roads, sewer systems and water—while “taking into account employment sources.”
Past evictees regularly complain that the relocation sites the government sets out for them lack the most basic utilities and are far from jobs and schools.
International donors and human rights groups raised concerns over the settlement plan during a meeting with government officials in December.
“The concern was that whole areas or settlements are designated as illegal without going through the process of land registration and assessing people’s legal status on an individual household basis, as required by the Land Law,” said David Pred, executive director of the housing-rights organization Bridges Across Borders Southeast Asia.
Contacted yesterday, Beng Hong Socheat Khemro, deputy secretary-general at the Ministry of Land Management, attributed such concerns to what he said was a semantic mixup over the terms “illegal” settlements and “squatters.”
The deputy secretary-general insisted that the government had settled the issue in subsequent meetings, and had replaced “illegal” with “squatter” in the text of the plan.
He declined to provide an updated copy.
“We have fixed the technical terms but the spirit of the circular is still the same,” he added.
Contacted yesterday, NGO workers were reluctant to comment on the plan, saying they were uncertain as to whether they had seen the version that the Council of Ministers was scheduled to vote on today.
“There is a great concern that the circular will be used as quasi-legal mechanism to evict the remaining urban poor communities from the capital,” Mr Pred said.
A proposed National Housing Policy plan calls for a three- to five-year moratorium on the eviction or relocation of informal settlements, in order to leave time for their proper adjudication under the law.
Mr Pred said that the housing policy ought to take effect before the settlement plan, and that the policy should serve as an overall guide.