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Professional squatters' a myth: housing advocates

Professional squatters' a myth: housing advocates

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090521_05.jpg

Rights groups say accusations obscuring legitimate legal claims.

Photo by: TRACEY SHELTON

A family sleeps in a makeshift shelter in Group 78, where residents face a pending eviction order from City Hall.

HOUSING rights advocates have dismissed recent comments made by national and municipal government officials that evictees at the centre of land disputes are often "professional squatters" who move from slum to slum and use NGOs to demand compensation from developers.

Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Mann Chhoeun told the Post earlier this week that many squatters are not legitimate residents of the neighbourhoods they claim to live in.

"There are some professional squatters in Phnom Penh, and these squatters get compensation ... and then return to grab other land in order to seek other compensation," he said Tuesday.

Last month, Foreign Minister Hor Namhong told an audience in Lowell, Massachusetts, that "the squatters always demand money. When they get the money, they go build another hut to live in, then demand money again. They are professional squatters", according to media reports.

But local rights groups say the officials' comments deflect attention from the bigger issue: ensuring fair compensation for those with legal claims.

Thun Saray, president of the Cambodian rights group Adhoc, said that the government's "professional squatters" are usually victims of inadequate relocation packages that give them little choice but to move on to places slated for development.

"When the government sends them to the outskirts, they cannot find a job," Thun Saray said. "They come back [to Phnom Penh] and try to find a place to live downtown, and then the government calls them ‘professional squatters'."

Other rights groups acknowledge that there are a few people who try to take advantage of eviction payouts, but that residents and NGOs refuse to help them.

Dan Nicholson, the coordinator of the Centre on Housing Rights Evictions' (COHRE) Asia and Pacific program, said that contrary to Mann Chhoeun's comments, communities do not depend on NGOs.

"In all of the communities we have worked with, the driving force in the defence of people's rights has been the community itself," he said.

Rachana Bunn at the Housing Rights Task Force said there might be a few opportunists,  but that Mann Chhoeun and Hor Namhong's comments are meant to distract attention away from the real victims.

"To state it like this is really inappropriate," she said. "The majority of people are real victims.... And in some cases, people who have a right to compensation don't receive compensation."

Residents of the Rik Reay community facing eviction say there were a small number of eviction speculators, but they were unsuccessful.

Kong Sophea, a Rik Reay resident, said, "There were a few people who bought land and built a house in the location, thinking they would get compensation," adding that these people were "influential", but that they were unable to receive any money.

The Cambodian government is not alone in its criticisms of communities facing evictions. Hor Namhong and Mann Chhoeun's comments are similar to ones made by governments across Southeast Asia, according to Nicholson.

"Across the Asian region, it's not unusual for the government to vilify communities as professional squatters."

No one was able to mention a specific case where a "professional squatter" received compensation.

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