The Phnom Penh Social Affairs Centre, commonly referred to as Prey Speu, is likely to undergo institutional modernisation following reports of several deaths of people who were temporally placed there, said a senior official.

Toch Channy – director-general of Technical Affairs at the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation – said the request is pending approval from minister Vong Soth.

“We may learn of the results this weekend. We will see what may have to be improved or changed at Prey Speu, and whether a change of management is required.

“For example, we may increase security or add more medical staff at the centre. We will examine management mechanisms for what we should do when there are new arrivals,” he said.

Local rights group LICADHO said they had recorded ‘abuses’ at Prey Speu since its inauguration in 2004 and requested a shutdown in 2008.

In their recent report, the group claimed that they had recorded at least 10 deaths at the centre in July and August last year. It alleged that the deaths were due to carelessness on the part of officers stationed at the centre.

Channy acknowledged that there had been deaths at the centre, but rebuffed the claims that they were due to negligence or human rights violations.

He said that following the allegations, the ministry had sent a joint working group from the Phnom Penh social affairs department to investigate. The team found that deaths had occurred, but that they were due to “technical errors” at the centre.

He said the investigation determined that LICADHO’s claims were partially true, but denied that negligence was the cause of the unfortunate loss of life.

He explained that some of the people who were interred at the centre suffered from pre-existing medical conditions, and that many of them had lived in exceptionally poor conditions prior to being rounded up by the authorities.

LICADHO deputy director Am Sam Ath welcomed the ministry’s investigation and its findings, but urged the closure of the centre, saying it had failed to fulfil its mission of providing vocational training to the homeless.

Sam Ath recalled Prime Minister Hun Sen’s comments in 2016, when he suggested that it could be shut down as it was a major source of human rights criticisms.

Rights group ADHOC spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna suggested that the centre could be a positive resource for the Kingdom’s social services, providing it was employed to offer vocational training and rehabilitation to the homeless.

He agreed that rounding up homeless people from the streets and placing them in the centre could improve social order, but only if it provided vocational training for them and ensured they had warm, hygienic accommodation, enough food and medical care.

In an interview with Radio France International (RFI) on December 7, Channy said the centre could not be closed as there would be nowhere else to accommodate the homeless.

“If we close the centre, where will they go? In fact, the centre has helped us to ensure good public order when we host international events,” he added.

Channy said that contrary to the allegations by some critics, Prey Speu is not a detention centre. Nobody can be detained there for their whole life, and it is not the centre staff who put them there, but the authorities.

“We don’t use the centre to house homeless people. We just place them there temporally in order to find their families or relatives before sending them home. During their stay, we provide vocational training for them, based on our existing mechanism,” he said.

Channy said that should NGOs discover any misconduct at the centre, they should work with the ministry and social affairs department to improve the situation, rather than just amplifying their findings and pointing the blame at any particular institution.

Channy also pointed out that the people who were temporarily placed at the centre were able to benefit from the government’s Cash Transfer programme for the poor and impoverished.

“If they are on the streets, how could we provide this support to them? Once they have a fixed address and are under our care, we can issue them with IDPoor cards so they can receive benefits accordingly,” he said.

“This is the main driver for sending them there, but many people seem unable to accept this positive aspect,” he said.