Earlier this month, a group of homeless people were rounded up from the streets of Phnom Penh and taken to a detention centre they said offered meagre meals, uncomfortable conditions and no access to a bathroom.
Those detained – a group that included children – said they were treated like criminals, though their only crime was having nowhere to call home.
While the incident spurred criticism from NGOs and the United Nations, it was only the latest in a string of forced detentions at Por Sen Chey district's Prey Speu Social Affairs Centre, a place rife with allegations – spanning more than a decade – of abuse, rape and even murder.
On the very walls of the centre, messages of desperation speak of a history of horrors.
Photographs, captured by local rights group Licadho in 2008, show messages of “living in terror [and] under oppression”.
One detainee scratched the words “Hell Life” onto the wall of a room where the windows had been nailed shut.
Following allegations of abuse, Prey Speu officially shut down in June 2012, but was reopened last year, rebranded as the Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre.
In reality, the changes seem to have been only cosmetic.
Aside from this month’s roundup, the centre, which is unequipped to offer any of the advertised training, remains a regular dumping ground for the capital’s undesirables as well as a de facto asylum for people the state considers mentally ill.
Earlier this month, Kim Vutha, chief of the notorious Daun Penh district security guards and the man charged with the district’s street sweeps, told the Post that in August alone, 100 people were rounded up from the area.
Many were sent to Prey Speu.
Heang Kheng, a homeless 45-year-old sex worker, said she was rounded up by the security guards and taken to the centre.
“The room in Prey Speu looks like a prison. It is dirty and we are given no freedom. They look at us like criminals,” she said.
While Kheng said she was offered the opportunity to be transferred into an NGO’s care, she opted to return to the streets to look after her young children and escaped from the centre by climbing over its low external wall, as dozens of others have in the past.
Other detainees were offered no such option by the centre, which remains ineffective at keeping them off of the streets long-term.
Lim Srey, 45, said she has been sent to Prey Speu three times.
Srey said that in the most recent roundup she and her daughters, aged 3 and 1, were locked in a room with little ventilation and no bathroom alongside dozens of other men and women of varying age.
Srey has lived on the streets, begging and collecting rubbish, since her husband died 10 years ago.
“I am poor, I don’t have any home to live in,” she said, adding that she would rather be on the streets than back in Prey Speu.
Sixteen-year-old orphan Chan Sophea, who was also among those rounded up in efforts to “clean” the streets for Pchum Ben, said he could not understand what he had done wrong.
“I just begged for money at the pagoda and they took me,” he said, explaining that, with no parents to support him, begging was the only way he knew to keep himself alive.
“It is so bad there; it isn’t a place anyone should stay. There is a bad smell and they locked us in one room.”
Sophea has continued begging at the pagoda every day, but, like others the Post spoke to, he runs and hides when he catches sight of the police.
While Srey and Sophea only stayed at the centre for one night, the UN Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) said a few individuals with psychosocial disabilities were not allowed to leave.
They have joined “a handful of mentally ill and elderly people” who officials, former detainees and staff at the centre say are in permanent residence.
OHCHR says there is no sign that they are being detained under coercion.
But for mental health experts, who point to the lack of formal psychological care offered at the centre, coercion or the lack thereof is irrelevant.
“If people who have mental health problems and are put in [a] confined place, it causes many potential risks,” Dr Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation (TPO), said by email this week.
Among those risks, Sotheara said, “depressed people may commit suicide”, while “psychotic patients with paranoid ideation may commit homicide or may harm others or cause property damage”.
Sotheara added that the “stressful burden” on the centre’s small team of untrained staff could lead to negative effects on their own mental well-being.
“This must be worse than the mental health institution, because there are treatment facilities in the institutions, while there is nothing at this centre,” he said.
Sotheara added that institutionalised care was not the answer and feared that the centre could become a “people warehouse”, where those with all manner of mental health problems end up.
“People first need to receive psychiatric or psychological treatment in order to stabilise their problems. Once their mental health status is stable, they need to be [given] ongoing treatment to maintain their symptoms at [a] level that [is] close to normal. Then they need to be reintegrated into their community”, he said.
But Son Sophal, head of the municipality’s Social Affairs Department, said that was not an option.
“We keep only elderly and mentally ill people, because there is no centre in the city providing for them. They are people who do not have families to take care of them … and at this centre, we have staff to look after them. They are also people with no homes and this is the only centre that gives them somewhere to stay,” he said.
Sophal is adamant that there is “no mistreatment” at the centre but acknowledged that with funds having dried up since 2012, Prey Speu could offer little help to the people there beyond food and a roof over their heads.
However, possibilities to provide greater care to those inside remain unexplored.
Dr Chhit Sophal, director of the Ministry of Health’s newly formed Department of Mental Health and Substance Abuse – the first government department focusing on mental health in the Kingdom’s history – said that the ministry had never been asked to provide support to the people at the centre but would like to do so.
“First, we need to go and visit and assess the situation, and after that we can help them by referring them to a hospital or providing care in the centre,” he said yesterday.
“We don’t need to go there every day; we can have a mobile team to support them.”
But for homeless people trapped in the centre, escape is the only option.
A long-term member of staff who asked to remain anonymous said he had personally witnessed countless breakouts.
“People never stay for a long time. They just stay for a day or two days; it takes time to escape.… I think they do it because they do not have freedom here,” he said.
But despite years of reports of abuse at the centre and acknowledgements from officials that it lacks the capacity to offer any real help to the people sent there – as well as calls from the UN last week to put an end to sweeps and the use of Prey Speu – officials yesterday said the roundups would continue.
“The collection of street people is still continuing and they will be sent to NGOs or Prey Speu,” City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said.
Sophal of the Social Affairs Department confirmed that they would go ahead.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, which began research on the centre five years ago, said Prey Speu should be destroyed.
“Until no one can actually be sent there, the abuses at Prey Speu are bound to continue.”