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Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Squatters: In search of the elusive answer

Squatters: In search of the elusive answer

S olutions to the squatter problem have so far failed miserably. In the second of

two parts, Jason Barber reports that squatters and officials are

being urged to cooperate.

IF the government and NGOs are in any

doubt about how not to deal with Phnom Penh's squatters, they need only look at

a small village 15km northwest of the capital.

From the outside, at this

time of year, Trapeng Reang looks fine. It boasts 504 single-roomed wooden

houses, lined up in neat rows, for former squatters.

But 60 per cent of

them are empty.

No-one, it seems, wants to live here. The land is no

good for farming, and it is too far away to commute to work in Phnom


Every wet season, the land floods. Residents use boats to reach

their homes, built on stilts.

Poor planning, mismanagement and corruption

have ruined the half-million-dollar Trapeng Reang project, one of Phnom Penh's

biggest forced resettlements of squatters.

"I don't think we will ever be

involved in something like this again," says Clare Keegan of the Irish-based NGO

Concern, which worked with the Phnom Penh Municipality on the


Of the 310 Phnom Penh squatter families trucked to Trapeng

Reang by the government in October 1990, one third never got the new houses they

were promised.

Those who did get houses included some of the hundreds of

other people, not squatters, who later flocked to the site.

The houses

were supposed to be free but many were sold by corrupt officials for as much as

3-4 domlungs of gold (worth $1200-2000), according to Concern, which built them

at the government's request.

Further sales and rentals of the houses,

though officially banned, were rife. Many of those houses now lying empty are

"owned" by property speculators who snatched them up at the start.


unoccupied houses are falling into disrepair, destined to "fall down in two to

three years," says Clare Keegan.

The site chosen by the municipality for

the housing - an area of water-logged land next to a dike - has proved


A second dike built by Concern later burst, plunging the area

under water every rainy season and reducing illicit property sales in the


Ironically, Concern is loathe to repair the dike for fear of

attracting more attention from property speculators and land


Many residents, meanwhile, hope for exactly that.


businessmen come buy this land to build a factory or something else, we would

all sell to go and live in Phnom Penh again," says former squatter Sok Chan

Reasmey, 36.

Asked where they would live, he says: "On the


Reasmey, like others, earns a living planting and harvesting

rice for others in the district. He would like to farm for himself but says his

land is unproductive.

Many others alternate their time between Trapeng

Reang and Phnom Penh, staying in the Capital for a week or two at a time to make

money selling food, driving motos, begging and so on.

Five years after

the resettlement project began, it seems most of the people it was designed to

help have, or will, end up back where they were - squatting on the streets of

Phnom Penh.

Robert Deutsch, an urban program adviser with the NGO Padek,

says other forced resettlements also failed.

In one, some 500 families

were evicted from near the Cambodiana Hotel in 1992 for resettlement about 12km

from Phnom Penh, at a site with "no market, no school, no water".


those, only 324 were given any land to settle on. Eleven of them remain there


"The people themselves were not involved in the planning and

weren't given any say in the location. We feel that was a major mistake," says


All Phnom Penh's 20,000 squatter families - totalling anything

from 80,000 to 120,000 people - are officially destined for eviction or

resettlement one day.

There are 187 identified squatter sites, mostly on

public land, according the Urban Sector Group (USG), made up of local and

foreign NGOs working with the urban poor.

A USG survey last year found

that about 60 per cent of squatters had no sanitary toilets, 56 per cent no

sewers at their sites, and 68 per cent no garbage collection.

Asked why

they lived where they did, most said they had "nowhere else" or that they were

close to work and school. The majority were willing to relocate, if given help

to settle in areas with adequate services.

The USG, along with volunteers

from the University of Fine Arts' Faculty of Architecture, is now planning a

project to look at the short and long-term potential of each squatter


Architecture lecturer Jonathan Price says the aim is to work with

squatters to determine which sites require eviction and which could be suitable

for temporary or permanent development.

Uncertainty over the future of

sites deters squatters from improving them, he says.

"They don't want to

do anything on their site if next week they might be thrown out.

"Some of

them have said if they knew they could stay there for five years, or however

long, they would be willing to spend money to improve their site."


argue that most squatters are willing to cooperate with the authorities to

resolve their situation.

"No-one wants to live like this," says Price.

"The government talks of the beauty of the city being affected [by squatter

sites]. Never mind what they look like, imagine if you had to live in


But so far there has been only token dialogue between squatters -

who have their own community groups and leaders - and the Phnom Penh


At a joint workshop early last year, it was agreed to form

a joint municipality, NGO and squatter committee. It has never


Robert Deutsch says the municipality seems intent on finding a

"ready-made solution" before talking to the squatters.

The director of

the municipality's land registry, Chhuon Sothy, agrees that squatters should be

consulted, "in order to figure out...what they want to do, where they want to

move to".

He says the municipality, ill-equipped to deal with squatters,

wants an inter-ministerial committee on the issue set up.

"I would like

journalists, NGOs and human rights groups to help us too. We are facing an

enormous task and big difficulties - [but] don't just demand from us whatever

the squatters want.

"The municipality has never abused the rights of

these people. They have abused the rights of the municipality, which has asked

them to move."

NGOs and the authorities often differ on just who

squatters are. NGOs say most are genuinely poor and otherwise homeless;

officials often describe them as thieves, prostitutes or land


Sothy talks of those who "are not real squatters, who just

occupy land, build shanties and rent them to prostitutes".

But even for

genuine squatters, there is little government land available for them to move

to, says Sothy, who heads a municipality committee investigating resettlement


One large piece of public land, at Beung Prayab about 5km

northwest of Phnom Penh, is unsuitable because it is flood-prone and too costly

to develop, he says.

Also, the Council for the Development of Cambodia,

with the First Prime Minister's support, is keen for foreign investors to turn

the area into a golf course.

Private land in the city is too expensive to

buy to give to squatters, he says, and officials have to look further


He points to a map, identifying areas of Kandal province - some

15-40km northwest and southwest of Phnom Penh - as possible relocation


Asked how squatters sent there would make a living, he replies:

"This is a difficult question but I suggest that the international

organizations, NGOs, can create some occupations for them."


resettlements may come soon - Sothy says several Phnom Penh squatter communities

will have to move in July, to make way for new sewage canals - though the

Trapeng Reang experience may make NGOs reluctant to participate.


NGOs, however, are proposing projects to look at the resettlement issue and

encourage cooperation between the authorities and


Representatives of Britain's Overseas Development Agency -

said to be considering putting $1-1.5 million into squatter site improvements or

resettlements - are due in Phnom Penh this month.

The United Nations

Development Program (UNDP) also has $350,000 to put into joint projects

involving squatters, NGOs and the municipality.

Robert Deutsch - who has

taken squatter leaders to Bombay and Bangkok to look at squatter problems - says

people on all sides of the issue must move now to find sustainable


Overseas experience shows the drift of provincial people to

Phnom Penh will continue, he says, and unless there is adequate housing many

will become squatters.

Says Jonathan Price: "It's not going to go away.

But the squatter population here is still quite small.

"If the government

moves to do something, maybe it can limit the problem. If they sit back and

wait, it will only get worse."



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