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UNICEF finds evidence of abuses

Local NGO also reports mistreatment of children at controversial Youth Rehabilitation Centre

THE United Nations Children’s Fund says there is “credible evidence” of “ill treatment” at a controversial rehabilitation centre it supports – an apparent shift in position after the agency rejected claims of rights abuses earlier this year.

The news came as a local NGO that provided services at the centre reported that it, too, has found evidence that children were abused, and that the government-run facility has been temporarily closed.

In a statement released by UNICEF’s regional office in Bangkok on Tuesday, the agency acknowledged that some children at the Youth Rehabilitation Centre (YRC) in Phnom Penh’s Choam Chao commune may have been abused. The statement cited interviews with children who were previously held at the facility.

“As a result of these interviews, we found credible evidence of individual incidents of ill-treatment carried out by older children who had been given responsibility for supervising younger boys,” read the statement, which also cited incidents of “slapping and hitting” by a temporary staff member.

That staff member, the statement continued, has since been dismissed for using “corporal punishment”, after UNICEF took its concerns to authorities.

The statement said the government has also stopped using “youth supervisors” and “suspended the acceptance of new referrals to the centres”.

In a January report, Human Rights Watch alleged that the YRC was one of at least 11 drug rehabilitation centres around the country in which detainees were subjected to forced confinement and frequent violence while receiving ineffective or nonexistent treatment.

Tuesday’s statement appears to mark a change the position of UNICEF, whose Cambodia country representative earlier this year said there was little evidence of violence at Choam Chao, and insisted that launching a UNICEF investigation into HRW’s allegations would extend beyond its mandate.

“These are allegations that have been raised by Human Rights Watch,” country representative Richard Bridle said in an interview in early March. “It’s not within our vocation to confirm or deny those.”

In an interview two weeks later, Bridle said he believed there was no systemic abuse taking place at the centre.

“There is no culture of violence there. There is an error in [HRW’s] findings,” Bridle said on March 18, and added that he had based his conclusions partly on a visit to the site and reports from a local NGO that offers services there.

That NGO, the street-children charity Mith Samlanh, said at the time that its workers had seen little evidence of violence during their twice-weekly visits.

But on Wednesday, programme manager Man Phally said his view had changed after he conducted a survey in April of 20 children formerly detained in Choam Chao.

“Most of them said they were beaten up,” he said.

“It was a surprise,” he added. “We didn’t know this earlier. No children reported to us about this. But since we had interviews with them, we found out it was really a problem.”

Sebastien Marot?the executive director of Friends International, which founded Mith Samlanh and now offers it technical support, said he believes there has been an escalation of violence experienced by children at Choam Chao since 2006, when UNICEF started funding the facility and Mith Samlanh scaled down its own services there.

Mith Samlanh had been “heavily involved” at the centre for roughly 10 years, Marot said, during which time the group managed to reverse a culture of violence at the centre.

Many of the children would use Mith Samlanh’s drop-in and vocational training facilities in the city centre during the day, before being returned to Choam Chao in the evening, Marot said.

In 2006, he said, the Ministry of Social Affairs, which runs the facility, drastically scaled back Mith Samlanh’s involvement when UNICEF stepped in with funding.

“They said, ‘We have funding, so we don’t need you’,” he said.

That’s when Mith Samlanh stepped back, he said.

“We were in no position to provide any type of training. We didn’t have the funds. We didn’t have the mandate. It wasn’t our job anymore, unfortunately,” he said.

UNICEF officials declined to comment for this story, as did officials with the Ministry of Social Affairs.

For its part, Human Rights Watch praised UNICEF for its statement this week, which advocated for the closure of drug rehabilitation centres. But HRW also called the agency’s initial response to reports of abuse “disappointing”.

“UNICEF has repeatedly said that they are not skilled at investigating abuse,” Joe Amon, HRW’s director of health and human rights, said in an email. “However, they must ensure that adequate monitoring systems are in place to find and respond to abuses in facilities they support.”

In the meantime, it remains unclear what the future holds for the Choam Chao facility. According to Mith Samlanh’s Man Phally, the rehabilitation centre has been closed temporarily for roughly a month; the ministry, he added, has not offered a reason for the closure. Marot said he plans to meet with ministry officials in the near future to discuss the situation.

In its statement, UNICEF said it is consulting with the government and NGOs “to ensure that there are adequate trained staff to provide for the care and protection of the children”.

ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY NAY SOMETA

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