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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Relocated evictees decry site

Relocated evictees decry site

Intl AIDS groups express concern.

RESIDENTS of the Tuol Sambo relocation site, who currently live in rooms smaller than those required for emergency refugee camps, complain of stifling heat, a lack of drinking water and walls so thin that gangsters have been able to cut through them with knives.

Each 3.5-metre-by-4.5-metre room houses an entire family, and every family has at least one member with HIV/AIDS.

More than five weeks after the first eviction, over 100 international rights and HIV/AIDS organisations joined with nearly 40 health experts on Monday to condemn the government's decision to evict more than 50 families from Borei Keila's HIV community in a process that ended Friday.

In the biggest expression of international concern over the eviction, the coalition of rights groups and AIDS campaigners described the site as a "de facto AIDS colony" in a letter sent to Prime Minister Hun Sen and Health Minister Mam Bunheng.

The letter calls for the government to improve conditions at the site as well as conduct a fair screening process to determine whether recently evicted families are eligible for on-site housing at Borei Keila.

Many residents said Tuesday they had lost hope of finding a regular source of income since being evicted from Borei Keila, located near Olympic Market in central Phnom Penh.

"I used to go to the market and sell fish. Now I can only stay home," said Lay An, a 68-year-old Tuol Sambo resident. "I need to pay 20,000 riels (US$4.77) to go to Phnom Penh and back, so I can't make a profit."

The relocation site currently has no source of clean water, say residents, who add they have started collecting rainwater to drink.

Resident Suon Davy, 42, said water jugs costing 1,200 riels were prohibitively expensive.

Kong Pisey, 52, said she could make 7,000 to 8,000 riels per day collecting garbage in Phnom Penh. In Tuol Sambo, however, she said she "can do nothing" except scavenge for small fish and crustaceans in nearby rice paddies.

The letter to the premier and health minister said international organisations and health experts were "deeply disturbed" by the conditions at Tuol Sambo, which, according to the letter, "pose serious health risks, particularly to people with compromised immune systems".

Suon Davy, who is HIV-positive, said living in poorly ventilated shelters without enough food had made her family more prone to illness. Her son just returned from the hospital this week, she said, adding that she constantly worries about her own health.

"The medicine cannot treat me," she said, "because when it gets hot, the pills break."

Sara Colm, a researcher for Human Rights Watch, said "many people simply don't know about" the plight of Borei Keila residents.

"What seemed to be missing was an international expression of concern," she said in explaining the impetus for the letter, adding that she hoped it would push the government towards taking greater responsibility for evicted communities.

"There is no sense the government is taking control," Colm said.

Suon Davy said the authorities had visited Tuol Sambo only once, on the day the first residents were forcibly evicted to the site.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun defended the government's actions with respect to the community and said NGOs were partly to blame for conditions at the site.

"We have worked hard already to do everything for them, but some NGOs just panic," he said. "We invited some NGOs to have a meeting and asked them to pay $20 to $30 a month to help the HIV/AIDS residents. But they said they could not help because we have no plan. NGOs are good at criticising."

Mann Chhoeun vowed to give the community clean water and provide a health-care centre for the community.

Mam Bunheng declined to comment directly about the letter, saying in an interview, "We are good at managing to help people, and we have done this according to our ability."

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