The government’s treatment of displaced squatters, relocated to remote sites after two massive fires late last month, violates an international agreement Cambodia has signed, according to local NGOs.
As a signatory country of the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, the government is obligated to provide housing to its citizens, including infrastructure such as sanitation facilities and drinking water, as well as access to employment, health care and education, the Urban Poor Crisis Forum, a coalition of Phnom Penh NGOs, reported.
But the nearly 3,000 families who lost their homes in the fires have been given none of these things—only plots of land in a rice field 30 km north of the city, where few can afford to commute to schools, jobs, pagodas and hospitals in the city.
“If the state ignores these principles, its various poverty reduction programs will only create more poverty,” said a coalition statement.
The municipality has proposed creating housing for the families, but observers say its plan for those displaced by the fires of last month is impractical and inappropriate.
Governor Chea Sophara’s housing plan would give each family an elegant, traditional-style tile-roofed villa, 5.65 meters tall and about as wide. In a city drawing published Wednesday in Rasmei Kampuchea Daily newspaper (Light of Cambodia), bushes adorn the front of the house—which has windows on each side and double doors in front—and a tree grows beside it.
Each of these houses would cost $3,000, Mann Chhoeun, the governor’s cabinet chief, told Rasmei Kampuchea Daily.
That’s a far cry from the $143 pole-frame, tin-roof design the UN Center for Human Settlements has used in other resettlements and proposed for this one.
Some NGO and aid agency workers associated with the squatter relief effort found it ironic that people who are too poor even to commute to town would live in such relatively lavish homes. They said the governor’s proposal is impossible to finance and wouldn’t suit the squatters’ needs anyway.
“It’s difficult for us to see the feasibility of it,” said Carol Williams of the Urban Resource Group. “If you multiply $3,000 by the number of families, it comes to quite a sizable sum.” Even if that much money—$9 million or so—could be found, infrastructure and access to jobs ought to take priority over ornate roofing.
But Chea Sophara Thursday said he envisions the squatter camps becoming attractive communities rather than squalid hovels.
He wants the residents to have “nice-looking” homes of which they can be proud rather than ashamed. That way, they won’t let their neighborhoods fall into decline, he said.
Chea Sophara is having 10 of the fancy houses constructed, hoping they will serve as models. If the families can’t afford the entire house design right away, he said, they can start by building just the frame, gradually adding walls, windows and doors.
The governor said he hopes donors and NGOs will surface to provide financial assistance to help the families build.
Meanwhile, Peter Swan of the UN settlements center met with municipal officials Thursday.
“We have discussed the house proposal…[and] we think [the decision] has to be taken back to the communities and left up to them,” he said.
, and indeed we think at this point that there is not so much value in arguing about design. We think [the decision] has to be taken back to the communities and left up to them,” he said.
At the meeting, Swan raised the issue of transportation into and out of the city from the relocation sites. It’s an expensive ride over back-breaking roads that takes 45 minutes by car—much longer by motorbike.
Swan said his agency is prepared to subsidize a truck or bus service, operated by the squatters, to make the trip in the morning and evening for a nominal fee. Officials responded enthusiastically to this idea, he said.
Swan also proposed that the roads be improved, which officials agreed to discuss.