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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Life in Limbo for Phnom Penh's evicted poor people

Life in Limbo for Phnom Penh's evicted poor people

IN LIMBO: A boy is checked for a heart murmur, a common side effect of Vitamin B deficiency, at the Andoung resettlement site 22 outside Phnom Penh. In May, military police evicted the last of 1,610 families from the Sambok Chab community by the Tonle Bassac and the city trucked them to Andoung -a paddy field without housing, water, sewerage, electricity, schools, health care, or hope of work. Six months later malnutrition, respiratory diseases and skin infections are rife among the children of Andoung.

The swollen, distended stomachs of the children testify to slow starvation. Their

eyes are vacant and encrusted with sticky residue.

Malnutrition and conjunctivitis are just two of the diseases rampant among the 1,610

families forcibly removed from their homes near the Tonle Bassac to an undeveloped

paddy field 22 km away more than five months ago.

"This is a very bad environment. The sanitation is terrible," said Dr Lai

Rapo, a physician employed by human rights NGO Licadho who administers basic health

services at the site five days a week. "Disease is spreading quickly."

In May, hundreds of military police rounded up the remaining Sambok Chab residents

in a dawn raid. The families were loaded into trucks and driven to their new home-the

gulag-like encampment of Andoung, a resettlement site 22 km from their old homes

in the countryside northwest of Phnom Penh International Airport.

Here, in Kouk Roka commune, Dangkau district, on the outskirts of Phnom Penh Municipality,

the families have spent five months in limbo as their physical and psychological

health has withered away. The final blow came on November 14 when this broken, battered

community was forced to uproot and move yet again.

"Over 400 families have been forced on to the tiny piece of land that the government

was going to distribute plot by plot," said Marie-Laurence Comberti, President

of Amade-Cambodge, a humanitarian NGO. "The conditions are terrible, sanitation

is appalling, the people are upset, the children are terrified."

NGOs estimate that approximately 1,610 families were evicted from Sambok Chab. Though

some have since been alloted plots of land, large numbers of families had been forced

to squat on adjacent privately owned land with no idea when, or if, they would receive

any compensation.

According to Combreti, the most recent removal is due to the municipality's failure

to pay rent to the owner of the land.

On November 14, the owner's patience ran out and he forced the families to dismantle

their huts and move on to the municipality's land. He then brought in a bulldozer

to clear the debris left behind, Comberti said.

"It was a very messy situation in Sambok Chab," said Henry Hwang, lawyer

at the Community Legal Education Center (CLEC). "NGOs advised the government

to go slow, to survey the communities there accurately to avoid problems with resettlement

- but it moved full steam ahead."

The result of this haste has been five months of uncertainty, deteriorating living

standards, and despair for many families at Andoung.

Rapo said that with no access to basic services - running water, electricity, healthcare,

or schooling - or any employment opportunities, Andoung was fast becoming a humanitarian

crisis and this most recent rearrangement can only make things worse.

"Mothers can't afford to give their babies proper milk so they mix condensed

milk and water, which doesn't have sufficient vitamins or nutrients," he said.

"This seriously impedes the children's future development."

Severe malnutrition, skin diseases, and heart murmurs caused by Vitamin B deficiencies

already abound, he said.

"When we make physical examinations of the children they often have serious

vitamin B deficiencies or anemia," he said. "Their swollen bellies are

the result of parasites in the liver, anemia or malnutrition."

Comberti said that as malnutrition and disease scythe through the children at Andoung,

the adult population is plagued by different, but equally difficult, problems.

"Domestic violence and alcoholism have increased notably," she said. "They

are just waiting at the site - so even getting people to remember to take medicine

properly is hard as they have no structure to their days, just a constant sense of

despair."

The forced move on November 14 has exacerbated an already dire situation, she said.

"The people are all worrying about what will happen to them," she said.

"Some of them have had to set up their houses right next to where the latrines

used to be - the smell is terrible but they were all just desperate to find some

piece of land to put up a home. Still some have nowhere - there is not enough space."

The families removed to Andoung who had not been given plots of land were among the

most vulnerable of Sambok Chab's residents, said Marie Courcel, technical adviser

at Friends International.

"They were a vulnerable population when they were living in Phnom Penh and required

more access to services than your average civil servant with a salary would,"

she said. "Yet now, those who need the most support, who need access to services

- both public [the municipal hospital] and private [NGO-run services] - have become

unreachable."

A few NGOs are working to avert the worst effects of the relocation. Friends International's

efforts with the municipality ensured 120 plots of land at Andoung were allocated

to families they support, and they have since managed to reintegrate 80 children

from these families into local pagoda schools. However, NGOs cannot take over the

responsibilities of the state in providing comprehensive basic services to Cambodian

citizens, Courcel said.

"There are huge problems with regards to the provision of HIV drugs, basic health

care, and schooling at Andoung," Courcel said. "We cannot afford to work

with such a large population, it is just not possible."

The government has legal obligations to its citizens that it is not undertaking with

respect to those it has moved to Andoung and not allocated plots of land, said Nuon

Sokchea, attorney-at-law at CLEC.

"The government has ratified certain international treaties, such as the Convention

on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights, which guarantees the right to education

and the right to access basis services," she said. "The government has

certain basic obligations to its citizens - but these people have just been dumped

on someone else's land."

The deterioration in the families' quality of life caused by their being "dumped"

from place to place is a concrete violation of Article 48 of the Cambodian Constitution,

which explicitly spells out the government's responsibility to its most vulnerable

citizens: "The state shall protect children from acts that are injurious to

their educational opportunities, health and welfare."

Not only have the adults and children at Andoung lost access to the basic healthcare

and education services to which they are entitled, they have been effectively disfranchised,

Sokchea said.

The distended bellies of children at the Andoung Villgage resettlement site are characteristic of malnutrition, anemia and liver parasites, says Licadho doctor Lai Rapo.

"These people have lost their citizenship - they can't register to vote, even

the children can't register at schools as they have no fixed address," she said.

"They have effectively become non-citizens, non-people."

Nor are they able to earn a living: the adults have to stay at the relocation sites

in case the list of plot allocations is announced. If their name is called three

times and they don't answer then they are thrown off the list, Comberti said.

"They are afraid to leave the site, even in medical emergencies," she said.

"This creates problems with health care - for example, if a woman needs to go

to hospital, then the doctor has to go and see the village chief and get a written

letter saying that this person is in hospital in case they call her name."

Courcel said that by failing to distribute plots of land swiftly and failing to make

the relocation sites habitable, the government is pursuing a counterproductive policy.

"If people have a plot of land and can earn a living, they won't go back to

the city," she said. "Some of the families who have been resettled are

far happier - but only if they are given that basic support which enables them to

live there."

Most of the families at Andoung were initially street families who were pushed into

Sambok Chab as Phnom Penh's streets were cleaned up. Now, as the city's squatter

areas fall prey to the municipality's "beautification" program, their residents

have been banished from the center of the city to its still-rural outskirts. But

without any services or means of earning a living at the relocation sites, the former

squatters will probably migrate back to the streets of the city center, Courcel said.

"Over the next six months I predict that you will see an increase in the number

of street families in Phnom Penh," she said. "Especially an increase in

the number of street working children as due to the relocation, the parents have

lost the ability to earn an income and children are increasingly obliged to work."

CLEC's Sokchea said the government is aware that people may abandon the relocation

sites, and has taken action to counter this possibility - not by making the relocation

sites habitable, but by making return impossible.

"City Hall knows this is a risky policy and they are worried that people will

come back," Sokchea said. "Before Om Tuk, I [noticed] many policemen protecting

the land at Sambok Chab - they told me that they were there because City Hall was

worried that people would use the Water Festival as an opportunity to come back to

the city again."

That NGOs - such as Friend's International, Amade-Cambodge and Licadho - have stepped

in to provide emergency aid to the people stranded at Andoung raises the concern

is that such private assistance allows the Cambodian government to continue to abdicate

responsibility for the welfare of its most vulnerable citizens.

"Early on the government destroyed all the houses at Sambok Chab," said

CLEC's Hwang. "NGOs wanted to distribute tents but the government wouldn't let

them, saying they could only distribute tents at the resettlement sites. It's a tough

decision [because while there is obviously great need for assistance] if you deliver

the tents at the resettlement sites you seem to be condoning the government's behaviour."

Emergency aid from NGOs can serve to let the government off the hook, he said.

"There are then tents at the resettlement site that the government didn't provide,"

he said. "But the problem is, when you have a situation where people are effectively

living in a concentration camp you can't follow these policies - kids are dying."

Courcel said the government could step in to take some simple actions to help the

people at Andoung.

"There are things that the government, which is responsible for moving this

vulnerable population 22 km outside town and hence away from services, could do,"

she said. "They could provide some schools or classrooms."

Hwang said Cambodia's 2001 Land Law gives the government the capacity to help landless

people in desperate situations, such as those currently in limbo at Andoung.

"If the [current Andoung squatters] were just renters at Sambok Chab, they would

have no claim to the land [being given as compensation]," Hwang said. "But

[as] poor landless people being resettled, the government could use social land concessions

- which are designed to deal with situations exactly like this."

The 2001 Land Law created "social land concessions" which provide for unused

land to be redistributed to the landless.

"Irrespective of what rights they had to the land at Sambok Chab, the question

is now: How can we help them?" Hwang said. "Using a social land concession

or issuing land titles for them - these are real steps that could be taken now."

The Andoung squatters are a poor, vulnerable community, living in deplorable conditions,

and they are in need of help greater than just short-term emergency relief, he said.

"But it is the role of the government, not the role of NGOs," he said.

"These are hard problems, but the question is, What direction do you want to

move in from here? Do you want to try to help these people or not?"

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