Logo of Phnom Penh Post newspaper Phnom Penh Post - Sex-worker scandal widens

Sex-worker scandal widens

Sex-worker scandal widens

NEW allegations from Human Rights Watch of abuses at controversial detention centres echo similar claims made by rights groups two years ago, sparking debate about whether authorities have done enough in recent years to address the issue.

In 2008, rights groups said abuse was rampant at the same two rehabilitation centres criticised in a report set to be released today.

At the Koh Kor centre, Licadho monitors documented conditions akin to those at a “prison” camp during visits in June 2008. They also reported witnessing at least two deaths.

Similar conditions were reported at Prey Speu, where detainees were illegally confined and subjected to a range of abuses by staffers, including extortion, beatings and rape, Licadho said.

Representatives of the United Nations human rights agency visited both centres and called the conditions “appalling”.

Since then, authorities have reportedly shut down the Koh Kor facility and reduced the number of people held at Prey Speu.

‘A long-term problem’
Christophe Peschoux, country representative for the UN human rights agency, said that while working in conjunction with the Ministry of Social Affairs for the last two years he had seen some improvements.

“Following our repeated intervention, we have ensured people are only voluntarily at these centres, and that staff from the Ministry of Social Affairs are no longer participating in street sweeps,” he said.

But Peschoux said authorities have refused to investigate past abuse allegations.

“The ministry is ignoring and rejecting our recommendations into investigating the allegations of abuse,” he said.

“This is a long-term problem that will not go away by ignoring it.”

Within the next 10 days, a proposal written by various NGOs and UN agencies will be given to the Ministry of Social Affairs as part of an effort to promote discussion of the problem, Peschoux said.

In the meantime, however, law enforcement bodies appear to be continuing with street sweeps in an attempt to displace sex workers and beautify tourist sites.

Sok Penhvuth, deputy governor of Daun Penh district, said more than 100 people in the last month had been sent to Social Affairs centres. Half of them, he said, were sex workers collected from sites including Wat Phnom.

“Their jobs affect society and sacred sites, and we do not want them to work as sex workers, so we send them to the vocational centres,” he said, and pledged to continue the crackdowns.

But Chan Dina, head of the Cambodian Prostitutes’ Union, which represents about 300 sex workers, said the Social Affairs centres do far more harm than good.

“Not only do we not receive vocational training like the authorities say, but the detention centres affect those sex workers who suffer from HIV/AIDS and are prevented from receiving their medicine,” she said.

The HRW report also takes aim at the Law on the Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation, which the government approved in 2008.

Advocates for sex workers say the law has given authorities an excuse to crack down.

“The law means that sex workers have no choice in the way they live,” Chan Dina said. “She is doing her job for financial reasons, and she is often shouldering the burden of her entire family.”

The HRW report recommends that parts of the law be repealed, saying it effectively criminalises sex work and causes “police harassment, violence and extortion of bribes from sex workers, trafficked persons and children in sex work”.

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