VORN Kandop, 43, was arrested on Monday while begging in the capital’s O’Russei market. Along with his wife and five-year-old son, he was taken one day later to the Prey Speu social affairs centre.
Most detainees are held at the notorious Dangkor district facility for at least three months. Vorn Kandop and his family were able to leave the centre yesterday with the help of local rights groups, and afterwards, he recognised their good fortune.
“We were told that we would be beaten if we tried to escape from the centre, and we saw people being beaten,” he said.
Until yesterday, Vorn Kandop’s son was just one of roughly 20 children housed at Prey Speu, a government-run facility established in 2003 that has come under renewed criticism following a report from the United Nations committee on child rights made public last week. That report calls for the release of all children in the Kingdom being held in “arbitrary detention”, yet activists fear that the entrenched patterns of abuse at Prey Speu show no sign of fading any time soon.
“For almost a decade, the government has ‘swept’ the streets and held homeless people, street kids, drug users, sex workers and the mentally ill against their will in Prey Speu. They are held without charge or trial, and subject to physical and sexual abuse,” Joe Amon, director of the health and human rights division at Human Rights Watch, said in an email.
“Without judicial oversight, without accountability, with absolute impunity, it is almost certain that people will continue to be abused and even tortured at Prey Speu.”
The centre, run by the municipal social affairs office, is a walled compound that sits amid rice fields a few hundred metres off a road on the outskirts of Phnom Penh. It is nominally voluntary, and government officials say it provides valuable services for beggars and other vulnerable Cambodians.
“Those beggars choose to live in the centre freely,” said Sorn Sophal, director of the municipal department of social affairs. “There is no harassment of those beggars and their children, and we have an informal school for the children."
A number of people at the centre are indeed there voluntarily, taking advantage of the free food and vocational training on offer. Roughly 75 are now being held involuntarily, however, according to local rights group Licadho, and scratch marks can be seen on the walls of the dormitory where some detainees are counting down their days in confinement.
Standing outside the Prey Speu gates earlier this week, a 13-year-old girl from the facility said she and her father had come there voluntarily about a year ago. She said she appreciated the food and schooling available, but acknowledged witnessing violence at the hands of staff on a regular basis.
“People are beaten with sticks when they try to escape,” she said. “It happens often – once a week or once every few days.”
Between 2006 and 2008, allegations of grave abuses surfaced at Prey Speu, including “torture, rape, beatings, reported incidences of suicide, and even reported killings committed by social affairs guards against detainees”, according to the UN Committee Against Torture. More recently, a 2010 report from Human Rights Watch carried accounts of vicious beatings and gang rapes performed by Prey Speu staff.
Rather than providing services, Licadho director Naly Pilorge said Prey Speu and other social affairs centres throughout the Kingdom exist to round up individuals considered “undesirables”: drug users, sex workers, beggars and street children who live alongside one another at the facility. Pilorge noted that reports of abuse have declined in recent years, but that the conditions leading to such abuses “haven’t changed much”.
“Individuals linked to credible allegations of beatings and rape are still among the staff employed at the centre, while Prey Speu continues to unlawfully detain some of Cambodia's most vulnerable people, including children,” she said.
UNICEF spokesman Marc Vergara said Prey Speu “is not equipped to accommodate children”, and that UNICEF “has advocated for the release of children in the centre and has offered to support the government with a plan for their reintegration”. While the organisation is not directly funding Prey Speu, Vergara said UNICEF does provide support to the Social Affairs Ministry “to strengthen standards and systems in child protection”.
Pilorge called on donors to apply further pressure on the issue, saying the closure of Prey Speu and similar centres “should be made conditional to aid given to the Ministry of Social Affairs”.
For Vorn Kandop's and other families, this would be a welcome reform.
“We were only at the centre for one day, but we found out that it is not a good place to live,” he said.