Nougy Mom bounces her 2-year-old son in her arms as she waits at the gates of Phnom Penh’s notorious centre for “undesirables”, Prey Speu.
The 34-year-old mother was there to visit her husband, a rubbish collector like herself, who was rounded up by authorities as he worked with their young son in tow.
Both father and son were transported to the centre for the city’s homeless, sex workers, drug users, the disabled and mentally ill – a place where two young people have died so far this year, it was revealed last week.
The toddler quickly became sick with a fever after two days at the centre and was released into Mom’s care. Despite filing the paperwork and jumping through the administrative hoops set up by the Ministry of Social Affairs, Mom’s husband has been detained for more than a week without release.
“They [the centre officials] keep saying he might be released ‘the next day, the next day’,” Mom told Post reporters last week.
It was people like Mom’s family that UN Special Rapporteur Rhona Smith was referring to in an advance release of her upcoming report to the UN Human Rights Council (UNHRC), obtained late last week, where she called for their release.
Her report highlighted that the facilities were poorly equipped to care for the children and vulnerable adults with medical needs and psychosocial disabilities there. “Many are neither homeless nor without family,” it reads.
“The Special Rapporteur notes the recent announcement by the Prime Minister that the drop-in centre should be made functional or be closed, and concurs with him, while urging the release of those persons being held against their will.”
The centre was put on notice by Prime Minister Hun Sen earlier this year when he called the centre a “troublesome” blot on the Kindgom’s human rights record.
Prey Speu deputy director Van Gnat, however, said it was “challenging” to confirm the identities of detainees in order to release them, while Social Affairs spokesperson Touch Channy yesterday said that the centre would remain open. “The government will not shut it down because the government has improved it,” he said.
In two visits in the past four months, the Post has encountered people with jobs and families detained for long stretches at Prey Speu. One woman claimed to have been rounded up simply because she was transgender.
However, many visitors said they had willingly entrusted their loved ones to the Department of Social Affairs, due to lack of overnight care for the mentally ill and their desperation in dealing with their relatives’ conditions.
The representative of the Office of the High Commissioner of Human Rights in Cambodia, Wan-Hea Lee, has repeatedly pointed out the core problem of Prey Speu is the involuntary nature of the stays, with people hauled there based solely on their appearance, in what municipal officials have openly admitted is a “beautification” project for the city streets.
Associate professor Simon Springer at the University of Victoria in Canada, who co-edited The Handbook of Contemporary Cambodia, said Prey Speu stemmed from deeply entrenched issues within Cambodian society.
“The entire logic of Prey Speu revolves around ignorance and an inability of Cambodian authorities to actually grapple with the complexity of their own society,” he said via email.
“So they enforce a distorted moral order to the spaces of the capital city, rather than embracing the plurality of different identities and designing social support networks where people actually have access to housing and a decent livelihood.
“The bottom line is that it is much easier to cage people than it is to ask questions about how . . . Cambodian society is failing to provide meaningful lives and livelihoods to the full breadth of its people.”
Social affairs director Sorn Sophal hopes that situation will be resolved with the construction of a new centre for the mentally ill, to be located at an orphanage site in Kandal that is due to open next year.
However, on the announcement of the new centre, rights commentators said siphoning out the mentally ill from Prey Speu and putting them in a new location would be fraught with the same issues and prone to abuse.
Additional reporting by Mech Dara