Delegates heading home from the Asean Summit have left behind countless homeless Cambodians, displaced by the municipality’s stringent efforts to sweep the streets of trash and transients.
And while police and municipal officials claim that few street kids were seized during the clean-up, local NGOs are wondering where some of them have now gone.
Although the municipality gave no official order to transport street workers and other homeless people to provinces outside the city, local NGO Friends reports that police hauled men, women and children into the countryside and sent other youths packing to evacuate popular public areas for the duration of the high-level meetings.
David Harding, Friends’ social and medical technical adviser, said informal reports indicate numbers of children were arrested and taken to the Chaom Chou Rehabilitation Center in Dangkao district.
But Chaom Chou Director Saing Naou refuted the claim. He said police did not bring any youths to the facility before or during the Asean Summit, and resident numbers actually have fallen in recent weeks.
Youths may have wound up at the Department of Social Affairs, according to Police Chief Suon Chenngly. He said few homeless youths were turned over to Social Affairs, but also said that only two or three youths are known to sleep in Phnom Penh streets.
Friends reports that approximately 1,500 street kids live in public areas, and 20,000 more make the streets their nightly workplace. It is unknown how many children were transferred to Social Affairs. Officials were not available for comment.
Urging the municipality to carry homeless children to its facilities instead of to the countryside or Chaom Chou, Friends opened two temporary shelters to deal with the influx of displaced persons. The facilities can accommodate 30 people each for overnight visits but are not equipped for long-term stays and already are over capacity. Services were scheduled to be terminated last Friday.
Mann Chhoeun, municipal chief of cabinet, said he did not order police to sweep the streets of wandering children, but opted instead to bring squatters to Friends for the duration of the summit.
But Daun Penh district Govenor Suos Rindy said he did receive an order from the municipality to prepare security and clean-up the roads and public parks.
“Some people understand the importance of our job… but others don’t. So we have to collect them and send them to the Department of Social Affairs,” he said.
Suos Rindy said he did not know what would happen in the aftermath of the Asean Summit. But he said the displaced would likely return to the streets, where they could face continued police crackdowns.
Municipality Deputy Cabinet Chief Pheng Heng agreed to send youths to Friends but said most would go to Chaom Chou.
“Most of the people that come here are forced from the countryside because of poor conditions,” he said. These are the latest efforts to strengthen ties between Friends and the municipality after a September workshop addressing problems caused by police crackdowns on the homeless.
Phnom Penh Governor Chea Sophara, Friends and UN organizations attended the workshop. Participants hoped the forum would lead to more humane treatment of displaced persons, but recent allegations of police cruelty tell another story.
Eighteen year-old Chan Sokhom, a temporary resident of the Friends’ shelter, said police beat and arrested friends of his sleeping along public streets just days before the summit. Youths that were awake during the crackdowns escaped detainment by running away.
“We are just kids, I don’t know why they treat us like criminals and prisoners,” Chan Sokhom said.
Although police agreed to send youths to Friends before hauling them out of town or to jail, clients say few police actually carried out the request and most used force to do so. The influx of clients staying at the shelters primarily resulted from word-of-mouth, they said.
According to Can Sokjom and his friend Ka Sambath, less fortunate youths were carted to Chaom Chou, characterized as a prison by center veterans for its allegedly abusive guards and unsanitary conditions.
Soum Vutay, a homeless 18 year-old Friends’ client, previously was detained at Chaom Chou for two months. More than 100 kids lived at the center then, he said, where they slept on bare floors in locked rooms. Soum Vutay, like many of the residents, developed a skin disease from unsanitary water and was beaten for singing aloud.
“They whipped me with an electrical wire until my back bled,” he said.
This is just the kind of treatment Friends wants to stop. Mann Chhoeun also recognizes the gravity of the crisis and is relying on the My Chance Children’s Center, a proposed vocational training shelter for homeless youth, to alleviate the problem.
The project would be constructed in Anlong Kngan village, Khmuonh commune, on 3 hectares of land purchased by the city for $45,000, Deputy Governor Map Sarin said in September.