A homeless woman sits on a bench on Sihanouk Boulevard in Phnom Penh. Rights groups say the municipality has cracked down on street people ahead of this week's ASEAN-EU meeting.
RIGHTS groups say at least 25 street people were rounded up by police
in Daun Penh district on Monday and Tuesday nights ahead of the
Wednesday opening of the 17th ASEAN-EU Ministerial Meeting in Phnom
Jason Barber, a monitoring consultant at local rights group Licadho, said 10 people Monday night and an additional 15 on Tuesday were unlawfully detained by security officials from the Daun Penh district office, handed to the Municipal Department of Social Affairs and trucked to Prey Speu, a government "rehabilitation" centre in Choam Chao district.
Barber added that the detained included an HIV-positive woman who had her antiretroviral drugs confiscated by district authorities.
"It could have been a death sentence for this woman if we didn't get [ARVs] to her in time," he said.
"This is just an indication of how the authorities are playing with these people's lives."
The most recent wave of roundups followed a similar sweep last week, when 30 beggars, suspected drug users, sex workers and homeless people were detained in Daun Penh and turned over to Social Affairs officials.
Barber said the unlawful detention of street people has been the policy of the government for "close to two decades".
Prey Speu is one of several government centres that have been widely criticised by rights groups, who say that inmates have been beaten and starved.
In its 2009 global human rights report released Thursday, Amnesty International writes that in 2008, the centres saw "at least three" detainees beaten to death and the gang rape of women by centre guards.
...the authorities are playing with these people's lives.
"We think that this centre, in particular, needs to be closed down. As long as it's open, it will continue to do nothing more than function as a detention centre," said Barber.
But Soun Chhoeung, deputy director of the city's Social Affairs Department, denied the sweeps were timed to coincide with the ASEAN-EU meeting, saying authorities intended to beautify the city and provide care and education for street people.
"The authorities in Phnom Penh city have to clear [these people] in order to make our city more attractive, and we don't want them to sleep on the street because it can make them sick," he said.
"We are worried about their health and future."
Daun Penh Deputy Governor Sok Penh Vuth added "it is bad for our city when foreign tourists see there are many street children and when
beggars come to them to ask for money. They make our city dishonourable."
Sebastien Marot, executive director of Friends International, said municipal clean-up efforts happened roughly every three months, but that the onset of big events - such as the ASEAN-EU meeting - appeared to accelerate the sweeps.
He added that Friends worked to help the victims of such cleanups by providing them with temporary accommodation and getting them out of the city's rehabilitation centres.
"We try to offer the municipality a different way of doing these things," he said, adding that 60 street children were now in a "holiday camp" run by Friends in Kampong Speu province, and that 20 families were staying at the group's two drop-in centres in the city.
"We're trying to get people out of those centres," he added.