Child protection groups who ostensibly partnered with City Hall in a campaign to clear the city’s streets of vagrants said the fate of some street people remained a mystery Wednesday after the municipality offered suspect figures on those rounded up.
Phnom Penh municipality said Wednesday it had collected 36 beggars and street-sellers and placed them in the care of NGO Pour un Sourire d’Enfant. However, the organization’s director said it had received only one child.
On Monday, City Hall announced an initiative to clear the city’s streets of vagrants, citing Pour un Sourire and Mith Samlanh—two nonprofits that work with street children—as partners in the project.
But as of Wednesday afternoon, the government’s statistics on the roundup were grossly inconsistent with its partner NGOs, and with those of local rights group Licadho, which has been monitoring the effort and says more than 70 people had disappeared from the city’s streets.
“Just 36 people so far have been rounded up,” said City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche, by comparison.
“They were already sent to Pour un Sourire d’Enfant,” he said.
Truckloads of vagrants—including women, children and the elderly—were loaded into trucks Monday. Mr. Dimanche said 33 of the 36 were collected on that first day of the blitz.
However, Pin Sarapich, program director at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant, said City Hall’s claim that 36 people had been taken to his NGO was false.
“On Tuesday, the department of social affairs brought 13 children here,” Mr. Sarapich said, adding that his team went through its usual process for considering new entrants to its program.
“In the end, 12 of those children were found to have families, so we accepted only one child, who is an orphan” he said, adding that the 12 had been sent back to their families.
Mr. Sarapich said that, while he had agreed to work with City Hall to place street children in vocational training, the city had brought the children to him unannounced.
“This is not how we operate. We planned to go out and talk with the people, learn what their problem is and try to create a solution for each person based on their individual case,” he said. “City Hall has its own strategy for this campaign but it does not work for us.”
Mr. Sarapich said four more children were brought to his offices Wednesday, but Pour un Sourire d’Enfant could not accept them.
‘They were from outside our region,” he said.
The whereabouts of those four children—and the 23 that never arrived at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant as Mr. Dimanche claimed—remains unknown.
San Sophal, director of the municipal department of social affairs, which is charged with placing the street children into vocational training programs, declined to comment on the campaign.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, said that through his network of sources, he counted 70 or more people who had disappeared from Phnom Penh’s streets since City Hall announced the round up.
He said the discrepancies in the numbers raised fears about the fate of those who were unaccounted for.
“We are looking for them because we suspect those street people could have been sent to Prey Speu Social Affairs Center,” he said, referring to the notorious vocational training center in Pur Senchey district that has come under heavy criticism for allegations of abuse.
Mr. Sam Ath also said he had information that some of the elderly people rounded up had been sent back to their home provinces. Mr. Dimanche denied the claim.
Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, which partners with Mith Samlanh in its work with street children, said he too had been surprised by City Hall’s actions.
“We are attempting to find out exactly what has happened but the police, [the department of social affairs] and City Hall all have different numbers,” Mr. Marot said, adding that Prey Speu had reported no new entries.
The municipality did not take any of the street people it collected to Friends International, according to Mr. Marot, whose attempts to monitor the campaign have been in vain.
“Communicating with them”—police, City Hall and the department of social affairs—“is very difficult,” Mr. Marot said.
“It’s very difficult to know what is happening. It is one big mess.”