The roundups of sex workers, drug addicts and the homeless in Phnom Penh ahead of, and during, this week’s two-day meeting of ministers from Asean and the European Union were criticized by an international and local rights groups on Thursday.
In the early morning hours of Tuesday and Wednesday, authorities rounded up more than 30 homeless people, sex workers and suspected drug users from the streets of Daun Penh and Prampi Makara districts, officials said. Many were released after being sent to the city’s department of social affairs.
“We collected them to arrange public order during the EU-Asean meeting,” said Soum Sovann, deputy governor of Prampi Makara district. “They make a mess of public order in the city.”
Mr Sovann’s statement echoed last week’s comments by officials when more than 30 people were rounded up May 21 in Daun Penh district. Mr Sovann denied that the roundup campaign was new, saying such sweeps were a normal activity that had tapered off. He also said such sweeps were implemented around the time of big events like the Asean-EU ministerial meeting.
In Prampi Makara district early Tuesday, authorities collected 13 homeless people and three suspected drug users along thoroughfares such as Kampuchea Krom, Sihanouk and Monivong boulevards, he said. On Wednes-
day and Thursday morning authorities couldn’t find anyone to collect, he added.
In Daun Penh district early Wednesday morning, authorities detained 16 homeless, sex workers and suspected drug users, said deputy governor Sok Penhvuth, adding that searches on Tuesday and Thursday mornings proved fruitless.
Ban Bopha, chief of administration of the city’s department of social affairs, confirmed that more than 30 people were dropped off at the municipal social affairs department on Tuesday and Wednesday.
From this group, sex workers were sent to Afesip, an NGO that works to combat trafficking of women, while youths suspected of using drugs were sent to a government youth rehabilitation center in Dangkao district, he said.
The homeless were sent to the city’s municipal social affairs center in Dangkao district, also known as Prey Speu, which has been criticized in the past for alleged physical and sexual abuse of detainees.
The homeless at Prey Speu were released after being “educated,” Mr Bopha said, adding that they were told to try to find a job and told that begging is dangerous.
“Our center received the homeless people for skill training.”
Joe Amon, director of Human Rights Watch’s health and human rights division, said the government should be condemned for it treatment of those it considers undesirable.
“In the strongest terms, HRW condemns these arrests without due cause and detentions without legal basis,” he wrote in an e-mailed statement.
“On a repeated basis, city authorities have trampled the rights of the homeless, some of the most marginalized and vulnerable of Cambodia,” he added.
Officials contacted Thursday at the EU-Asean summit, the second and final day of the meeting, had little to say on this week’s round of detentions.
“We haven’t heard anything of that,” said Boguslaw Marcin Majewski, head of the EU Council Delegation, when asked of the sweeps.
“We are not aware of that,” said Surin Pitsuwan, Secretary-General of Asean. “I think that’s a matter that you have to ask the hosts.”
Among the people detained this week was an HIV/AIDS positive women whose antiretroviral medicine was taken by authorities, said Jason Barber, a consultant with local rights group Licadho.
“It’s very dangerous not to take the medicine promptly or miss a day,” he said, adding that the woman had missed three doses since being picked up and released.
Also detained was a woman who has been ousted from her home in two separate forced evictions, the latest being the January clearing of the Dey Krahorm community in Phnom Penh’s Bassac commune.
“Roundups like these do nothing to address the core reason why people are homeless and on the streets,” Mr Barber said. “If the government really wants to reduce the number of homeless, then stopping the evictions would probably do more to achieve that then arbitrarily arresting the homeless.”
(Additional reporting by Bethany Lindsay)