Following last week’s street sweep, children as young as 7 years old were kept in Phnom Penh’s notorious Prey Speu social affairs centre, eyewitnesses, staff and those targeted by the initiative have told the Post, directly contradicting government denials offered earlier this week.
Standing at the centre’s locked gate in Por Sen Chey district yesterday morning, a member of staff who asked not to be named said three caged vans pulled up with no warning last week and offloaded dozens of beggars, street sellers, and homeless adults and children.
“Most of them did not want to stay here. It is far away from the city, so they wanted to go back to Phnom Penh to earn money,” he said.
According to the source, 52 people were rounded up and dropped off, with ages ranging from 7 to about 60.
Last week’s roundup came under a directive signed by Deputy Governor Seng Ratanak, which was packaged as an effort to combat human trafficking and to offer useful vocational training.
But the Prey Speu staff member told the Post that those deposited at the facility were “not given any training” and instead spent their time much as they would have on the streets: cleaning and collecting rubbish.
The source said a handful of those brought to the centre escaped by climbing over the walls, as women and children from Borei Keila did when they were detained there in 2012.
The rest, who stayed for about two days, were picked up by family members or driven back to the city after an official from the Social Affairs Department had taken down their details, he said. According to the source, no one from the roundup remains at the centre, which he said is permanently occupied by about half a dozen “mentally ill and elderly people” who have nowhere else to go.
With no doctor or mental health professionals on site, the source said four staff members are charged with cooking the residents' meals and ensuring their safety.
Dr Chhim Sotheara, executive director of the Transcultural Psychosocial Organisation, said it was crucial that those at the centre “be given training and adequate health care – both physical and psychological”.
Several of the homeless people who were sent to Prey Speu and are now back on the streets told the Post this week of uncomfortable conditions and inadequate meals at the centre.
“I didn’t like it there; I had no freedom,” said eight-year-old Vin Phana.
Phana said he will hide if the authorities return to take him away again and insisted that money to cover his travel to Preah Vihear province, where he said his parents live, was all he wanted from the authorities.
Several people who live near Prey Speu yesterday recalled the moment they saw the caged vans drive towards the centre.
“There were children in there and jasmine sellers throwing flowers onto the road. They were shouting ‘help me’,” said Ngan Ty Da, the owner of a roadside café next to Prey Speu.
Ty Da said she saw one of the escapees hiding next to the road. “He tried to beg a van to take him [back to Phnom Penh] but ended up running off.”
Another local, 17-year-old Chom Makara, also claimed to have seen the caged vans.
“I saw two of them come here. Then I saw them drive away with no one inside,” he said.
Despite the first-hand accounts, authorities yesterday continued to deny Prey Speu was used in the street sweep.
“I told you already that Prey Speu just houses people who are elderly and mentally ill. We rounded up the homeless and beggars to find people who are victims of trafficking,” said Son Sophal, director of the Social Affairs Department. According to the Prey Speu staff member, an official from that department showed up at the centre .
City Hall spokesman Long Dimanche said he did not know that people had been sent to Prey Speu, and as far as he knew, all of those rounded up last week were sent to Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE).
PSE, one of the partner NGOs charged with monitoring and educating those swept up, says it is offering help to just 13 children from the initiative.
Am Sam Ath, technical supervisor at Licadho, condemned the alleged use of the centre.
“They are not criminals, so when the authorities force them to stay at Prey Speu, I think it is a violation of their rights.”