Facing fresh calls to overhaul or close down the Pur Senchey Vocational Training Center, the Ministry of Social Affairs said Thursday that it was considering changing the center’s name and dividing the facility into separate centers for homeless people and mentally ill patients.
Officials from the ministry and the Phnom Penh municipal government met Thursday to discuss the center’s fate and the best way to deal with homelessness and mental illness in the capital. The meeting came two days after local rights group Licadho once again called for the closure of the notorious center, often referred to as Prey Speu, following the deaths of two detainees there over the past month.
Following the meeting, Social Affairs Minister Vong Sauth said that the center—long criticized for reports of sexual and physical abuse—would no longer place all of its detainees together.
“We must have a place for the mentally ill people and we must have a place to cover the homeless,” said Mr. Sauth, going on to hit back at critics of the center.
“One or two people died, but they accused us of allowing them to die by drowning or disease,” he said, referring to recent reports of a man drowning in a pond and a woman dying in her sleep at the center.
“Some NGOs wish to cause problems. They will criticize us, because when they criticize they will get a profit,” he added. “If Licadho said that we do not respect human rights, let Licadho take care of them directly.”
Sorn Sophal, director of the Phnom Penh social affairs department, said that the name of the center, which does not offer any actual job training, would be changed to better reflect its purpose and encourage NGOs to help.
“I will send a letter to request to the Ministry of Social Affairs and Phnom Penh municipality to change the name from vocational training center to social affairs center,” he said.
Mr. Sophal added, however, that calls to close down the center were unreasonable.
“Now, there are nearly 100 homeless people [at Prey Speu]. If we close it, I ask Licadho: Where will we take the nearly 100 homeless people? Who will feed them?” he said.
Mr. Sophal invited human rights groups and NGOs to assist the center by offering relevant programs that could help those living inside.
On Tuesday, Licadho said that the latest deaths of detainees was further proof that the center, often used as a place to keep vagrants and mentally ill people after “street sweeps” of Phnom Penh, was not equipped to deal with those under its care.
Naly Pilorge, Licadho’s director, said Thursday that a name change or other improvements to the Pur Senchey center were not sufficient.
“Licadho believes that Prey Speu’s closure, not its upgrade, is the prerequisite to finding humane alternatives to social issues such as homelessness and mental illness,” she said in an email.
“It has long become clear that as long as Prey Speu is not definitively closed, abuses will occur again and again,” Ms. Pilorge said.
Sebastien Marot, executive director of the NGO Friends International, which works to help reintegrate children detained at the center, said that the reforms proposed by the government were promising, but that it would require a great deal of expertise to provide the care needed by those at the center.
“It’s a highly professional and specialized field, so the training required is really important and high,” Mr. Marot said of caring for mentally ill and homeless people.
“What is needed requires such advanced training and such an advanced facility, that there’s a lot of work to be done to be able to operate this properly.”