Officials have vowed the Prey Speu centre – which houses hundreds of the city’s homeless and has been repeatedly denounced for a raft of abuses – will not close, on the back of a visit from the Phnom Penh governor and Minister of Social Affairs yesterday.
Not all of the 234 detainees are without homes – some were merely caught up in government sweeps to get “undesirables” off the streets – but all are of one mind about the “vocational” centre, emphatically and universally maintaining it should be closed.
Many detainees – including some with homes – said they could not be released without their families paying up to $200, and they did not dare escape for fear of being beaten by guards.
Detainee Sok Kha, 25, works as a security guard but sleeps in a hammock on the streets. “My wife went to the district office to get a letter proving she is my relative, but they demanded $100. She is pregnant and has no job … Without my work; we have nothing,” he said.
“I ask the officer when will they release us, and they said you will never be released.”
This is his second detention at the centre – last time he escaped.
Transgender woman Sok Lyheant, 23, has been in jail for two months, but has a job at a bar and a family at home.
She was arrested as she was walking home at night, past Wat Phnom, she said, an area known to be frequented by sex workers. She is not sure how much her mother paid to have her released, but she is due to go home in the coming days.
Dozens of detainees said they wanted to leave, and that the centre was “worse than a prison” where no training has taken place.
They claimed they are locked in rooms – yesterday was an exception for the ministerial visit – and let out only for meals three times a day.
Yesterday’s visit came on the heels of a speech from Hun Sen, who demanded either an overhaul or closure of the controversial centre.
Since the Post’s last visit in July of last year, and six months after a UN review recommending a halt to “round-ups” and that the centre should be voluntary and open-access, very little appears to have changed.
An ambulance comes every Friday to dish out paracetamol and antibiotics, but visiting doctor Sem Visoth said diarrhoea and skin diseases were rife at the centre.
In a letter read aloud to visiting officials, Phnom Penh social affairs director Sorn Sophal admitted the centre’s substantial failings, including lack of sleeping areas, no support for the mentally ill, no standby doctor or transport for the sick to hospital, no electricity or sewerage pipes, and five months without pay for contract workers.
Minister of Social Affairs Vong Soth said he and the governor were firmly committed to reform. “We cannot close this centre, because there is a demand … we need to better restructure the management,” Soth said.
City governor Pa Socheatavong urged relatives to prove their link to detainees so they could be returned. “We don’t want to keep the people here; we just want to ensure they will not be taken advantage of.”
Men, women and children – many with physical or intellectual disabilities or HIV – sat with pressed palms begging, sometimes tearfully, for their freedom, as the officials paraded past.
They were then shooed back inside buildings by centre chief Ban Vutha, while Phnom Penh governor Pa Socheatavong handed out crisp 50,000 riel notes ($12.50) to each guard at the end of his visit.