In the wake of more tragedies at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu social affairs centre, the government yesterday proposed plans to create new facilities with specialised care, while leaving the notorious centre open for “voluntary” training programs.
Two people died last month at Prey Speu, bringing the death count at the centre to three in less than a year. Detainees at the facility said in interviews on Sunday that two men had also disappeared after allegedly being taken to hospital after falling ill.
While the Municipal Social Affairs Department, which runs the centre, has denied the reports of deaths and illnesses, the Ministry of Social Affairs, Veteran and Youth Rehabilitation has acknowledged the fatalities and yesterday held a meeting to discuss possible reforms. Minister Vong Soth said Prey Speu, which officially changed its name to Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre in 2013, has long been misused.
“Prey Speu is a training centre where people who volunteer go to stay, but we do not yet have a centre for homeless people or people with mental illnesses, so they get mixed together at Prey Speu when the authorities do round-ups” of so-called undesirables from the capital’s streets, he said.
The minister acknowledged the centre was often unable to meet the needs of those detained there and announced that a new technical working group would be created to look for alternative solutions.
That working group will include a UN presence, according to Wan-Hea Lee of the Office of the High Commissioner for Human Rights, who said the OHCHR would participate “along with other UN agencies and civil society organisations that can offer assistance and expertise”.
Ministry spokesman Toch Channy said officials hoped to find new locations for centres specifically designed for the homeless and mentally ill, while leaving Prey Speu open for “voluntary” training.
While touting possible solutions yesterday, officials also sought to distance themselves from claims of abuse. “When they died at the centre, people thought we didn’t care and were violating human rights, but they died because of drowning and illness,” Channy said of the recent fatalities.
Officials also called on critics of Prey Speu to join them in finding solutions.
Am Sam Ath, a technical supervisor at local rights group Licadho, who released a statement about last month’s deaths, was singled out. “We want him to work together with us to find solutions for homeless people, not only shout in the media,” said Soth.
Sam Ath yesterday said he supported plans to create new centres, provided they offer adequate care, but said he would continue speaking out about abuses in Prey Speu.
Phil Robertson, deputy director of Human Rights Watch’s Asia division, said new facilities would not be a solution.
“The authorities should be providing medical and other services to these people in their communities and using voluntary approaches that recognise people’s freedom to movement, expression, and assembly, and support their rights to housing, employment and a dignified life.”
ADDITIONAL REPORTING BY ALICE CUDDY