Soon-to-be-implemented government plans to educate and rehabilitate Phnom Penh’s ubiquitous beggar population have been met with skepticism and concern by a rights group because of past allegations of abuse.
But Sorn Sophal, director-general of the municipal social affairs department, said Wednesday the plans will be “completely different” from past social affairs centers where, the rights group Licadho has said, officials illegally detained and abused homeless people and provided no services.
The municipality’s new program would create three-month courses at a new social affairs center in Dangkao district’s Choam Chao commune beginning in March and could help 300 people who are down on their luck become hair stylists, carpenters, garment workers and farmers, said Sorn Sophal, who put the cost of the program at 1.5 million riel, or about $375, per person.
Sorn Sophal also denied the past allegations of abuse, and said there will be no mistreatment of those who enter the vocational training programs.
“No such actions will happen,” he said. “Human rights workers can go in and out of my center as they wish.”
“We want beggars to live with dignity, even if they can earn more from begging,” he said. “[Begging] looks as if the government pays them no attention. It creates disorder.”
But Licadho expressed skepticism regarding the municipality’s plans.
“The unlawful detainment of homeless beggars in Phnom Penh has been going on for more than a decade. It is very hard to take the ministry at their word because of the track record of abuses,” said Jason Barber, a consultant with Licadho, adding that the centers only existed to keep the homeless off the street.
A November Licadho report stated that participants suffered abuse, starvation and illegal detainment at social affairs centers, one also in Choam Chao commune and another in Koh Kor island in Kandal province. The report shows photos of graffiti on the walls at the Choam Chao center that includes statements like, “This is to mark that I lived in terror under oppression.”
The report accuses the government of not investigating center employees accused of rape and murder.
The government gave only limited access to those centers and Barber questioned what access would be provided at the new center.
“If they say we will get access, that’s a significant change,” he said. “It’s difficult to be sure that human rights groups can get real access instead of token access when we are only allowed in at certain times and not at times when abuse is happening.”
Sorn Sophal said the group Friends International, which works with street children, will provide assistance to the new center.
Sebastien Marot, international coordinator for Friends, agreed that the municipality’s plan could help people, but said his organization needs more assurances from the government about human rights before it will participate.
“We are cautious because of what Licadho came up with,” he said. “We need to make sure that the past is being dealt with and that the future is safe.”
The municipality’s social affairs department first approached Friends in November but is still finalizing the terms of the agreement, Marot said.
“I think it’s an important plan. I think that they will have to work with as many partners as possible,” he said. “They will have to be very transparent to avoid any type of accusations.”
Outside Phsar Tuol Tompoung holding her 1-year-old in one hand and a tin pan in another hand, beggar Han Mit said she would like to be trained at the new center, but that it is not really an option for her.
“If I get training, who will look after my children?” she asked.
She said she makes about $70 a month begging to support her sick husband and three children, two of whom live in Kompong Speu province.
Her income as a beggar is more than that of many civil servants and is a decent bit above the $55 minimum wage for garment workers.