Despite safety concerns, at least two previous fires and requests from villagers to relocate to a different site, Phnom Penh officials plan to return the 1,000-plus residents of a razed rooftop squatter village to the homes they lost in a raging blaze earlier this week.
While Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara’s decision to return the squatters hinges on a report by city engineers showing the Lok Tanpa rooftop squatter village site is safe, the city has few options and firmly intends to move the residents back, the governor admitted in interviews Wednesday and Thursday.
“We have no choice. If we had a proper place to relocate them or the budget to send them there, or if the people agree with a relocation plan, then we would do it. But we do not,” he said.
A fire Tuesday destroyed the Lok Tanpa rooftop village, between streets 49 and 51. Witnesses and officials gave conflicting accounts, saying the fire most likely started by a cooking mishap or faulty electrical wires.
Although only one person was seriously injured, the fire destroyed more than 200 homes and left at least 1,050 people homeless.
Almost all of the Lok Tanpa villagers are squatting on streets 49 and 51, staying with relatives, or they are in the process of moving back to their burned-out homes.
Chea Sophara, who toured the fire site Wednesday evening, said he is well aware of the potential fire risks of the Lok Tanpa site and will not allow residents to return if a city study shows the building and rooftop are not structurally sound.
Many fire victims expressed concern Wednesday that they wanted to be relocated to another site, but the city could not comply with their wishes.
“Many people made this request, but I cannot reply to them because we have no money. We are considering buying land to relocate the squatters on if they cannot move back, but now we do not have the money to buy the land,” the governor said.
Concerns about the safety of the Lok Tanpa rooftop village, however, have been raised recently from both NGOs and residents of the village. Even so, many activists acknowledged the city is in a bind.
“We have strong doubts as to the safety of Lok Tanpa and whether the residents should return to the rooftop village,” said Peter Swan, the senior technical advisor to the Phnom Penh Urban Poverty Reduction Program and a UN-Habitat official. “The rooftop squatter village is not optimal, and the dangers are real and present, but there are few options right now.”
Although finding a long-term housing solution is a top priority for NGOs and the city, the most pressing issue now is finding temporary emergency shelter for the 1,000 squatters, most of whom are camping on the sidewalk near the site of the fire, Swan said.
Swan, who is working closely with the city, said UN-Habitat and other NGOs are urging the city to consider two temporary emergency sites. One is a block behind Calmette hospital and the other is in an old mansion near the new Red Cross building off street 63.
The city, however, is considering moving the fire victims to a pagoda behind the former Red Cross building near Norodom Boulevard, a site Swan said is “not adequate” because it is probably too small for the more than 200 families seeking shelter.
The municipality will place the Lok Tanpa villagers on the temporary site today or over weekend, where they will remain for at least three to four weeks before a final decision is made on where they will live long-term.
While UN-Habitat is also considering the rooftop an option for the squatters, Swan said they are advising people of their choices and warning them of the potential fire hazard of the site.
Most Lok Tanpa residents, however, already know the dangers at the site. At least two previous fires—one in 1994 and another in 1999—had burned down sections of the community, said Pov Moun, the village chief of Lok Tanpa Wednesday.
Around 50 people were moving back to Lok Tanpa late Wednesday afternoon, and all but one of the seven villagers interviewed said they were worried that another fire could wipe out the village if it is rebuilt.
“I want to move because I am afraid of another fire, but I have no money to move,” said Dy Na, 38, who spoke while sitting on a bench near the gray ashes of his former home. A resident of Lok Tanpa for 10 years, Dy Na said a lack of money, more than anything else, has him resigned to returning to the village. “If they city finds us another place to live, we will move. But since I have no money, I will stay here. I have been living here for 10 years because I have no money.”