S olutions to the squatter problem have so far failed miserably. In the second of
two parts, Jason Barber reports that squatters and officials are
being urged to cooperate.
IF the government and NGOs are in any
doubt about how not to deal with Phnom Penh's squatters, they need only look at
a small village 15km northwest of the capital.
From the outside, at this
time of year, Trapeng Reang looks fine. It boasts 504 single-roomed wooden
houses, lined up in neat rows, for former squatters.
But 60 per cent of
them are empty.
No-one, it seems, wants to live here. The land is no
good for farming, and it is too far away to commute to work in Phnom
Every wet season, the land floods. Residents use boats to reach
their homes, built on stilts.
Poor planning, mismanagement and corruption
have ruined the half-million-dollar Trapeng Reang project, one of Phnom Penh's
biggest forced resettlements of squatters.
"I don't think we will ever be
involved in something like this again," says Clare Keegan of the Irish-based NGO
Concern, which worked with the Phnom Penh Municipality on the
Of the 310 Phnom Penh squatter families trucked to Trapeng
Reang by the government in October 1990, one third never got the new houses they
Those who did get houses included some of the hundreds of
other people, not squatters, who later flocked to the site.
were supposed to be free but many were sold by corrupt officials for as much as
3-4 domlungs of gold (worth $1200-2000), according to Concern, which built them
at the government's request.
Further sales and rentals of the houses,
though officially banned, were rife. Many of those houses now lying empty are
"owned" by property speculators who snatched them up at the start.
unoccupied houses are falling into disrepair, destined to "fall down in two to
three years," says Clare Keegan.
The site chosen by the municipality for
the housing - an area of water-logged land next to a dike - has proved
A second dike built by Concern later burst, plunging the area
under water every rainy season and reducing illicit property sales in the
Ironically, Concern is loathe to repair the dike for fear of
attracting more attention from property speculators and land
Many residents, meanwhile, hope for exactly that.
businessmen come buy this land to build a factory or something else, we would
all sell to go and live in Phnom Penh again," says former squatter Sok Chan
Asked where they would live, he says: "On the
Reasmey, like others, earns a living planting and harvesting
rice for others in the district. He would like to farm for himself but says his
land is unproductive.
Many others alternate their time between Trapeng
Reang and Phnom Penh, staying in the Capital for a week or two at a time to make
money selling food, driving motos, begging and so on.
Five years after
the resettlement project began, it seems most of the people it was designed to
help have, or will, end up back where they were - squatting on the streets of
Robert Deutsch, an urban program adviser with the NGO Padek,
says other forced resettlements also failed.
In one, some 500 families
were evicted from near the Cambodiana Hotel in 1992 for resettlement about 12km
from Phnom Penh, at a site with "no market, no school, no water".
those, only 324 were given any land to settle on. Eleven of them remain there
"The people themselves were not involved in the planning and
weren't given any say in the location. We feel that was a major mistake," says
All Phnom Penh's 20,000 squatter families - totalling anything
from 80,000 to 120,000 people - are officially destined for eviction or
resettlement one day.
There are 187 identified squatter sites, mostly on
public land, according the Urban Sector Group (USG), made up of local and
foreign NGOs working with the urban poor.
A USG survey last year found
that about 60 per cent of squatters had no sanitary toilets, 56 per cent no
sewers at their sites, and 68 per cent no garbage collection.
they lived where they did, most said they had "nowhere else" or that they were
close to work and school. The majority were willing to relocate, if given help
to settle in areas with adequate services.
The USG, along with volunteers
from the University of Fine Arts' Faculty of Architecture, is now planning a
project to look at the short and long-term potential of each squatter
Architecture lecturer Jonathan Price says the aim is to work with
squatters to determine which sites require eviction and which could be suitable
for temporary or permanent development.
Uncertainty over the future of
sites deters squatters from improving them, he says.
"They don't want to
do anything on their site if next week they might be thrown out.
them have said if they knew they could stay there for five years, or however
long, they would be willing to spend money to improve their site."
argue that most squatters are willing to cooperate with the authorities to
resolve their situation.
"No-one wants to live like this," says Price.
"The government talks of the beauty of the city being affected [by squatter
sites]. Never mind what they look like, imagine if you had to live in
But so far there has been only token dialogue between squatters -
who have their own community groups and leaders - and the Phnom Penh
At a joint workshop early last year, it was agreed to form
a joint municipality, NGO and squatter committee. It has never
Robert Deutsch says the municipality seems intent on finding a
"ready-made solution" before talking to the squatters.
The director of
the municipality's land registry, Chhuon Sothy, agrees that squatters should be
consulted, "in order to figure out...what they want to do, where they want to
He says the municipality, ill-equipped to deal with squatters,
wants an inter-ministerial committee on the issue set up.
"I would like
journalists, NGOs and human rights groups to help us too. We are facing an
enormous task and big difficulties - [but] don't just demand from us whatever
the squatters want.
"The municipality has never abused the rights of
these people. They have abused the rights of the municipality, which has asked
them to move."
NGOs and the authorities often differ on just who
squatters are. NGOs say most are genuinely poor and otherwise homeless;
officials often describe them as thieves, prostitutes or land
Sothy talks of those who "are not real squatters, who just
occupy land, build shanties and rent them to prostitutes".
But even for
genuine squatters, there is little government land available for them to move
to, says Sothy, who heads a municipality committee investigating resettlement
One large piece of public land, at Beung Prayab about 5km
northwest of Phnom Penh, is unsuitable because it is flood-prone and too costly
to develop, he says.
Also, the Council for the Development of Cambodia,
with the First Prime Minister's support, is keen for foreign investors to turn
the area into a golf course.
Private land in the city is too expensive to
buy to give to squatters, he says, and officials have to look further
He points to a map, identifying areas of Kandal province - some
15-40km northwest and southwest of Phnom Penh - as possible relocation
Asked how squatters sent there would make a living, he replies:
"This is a difficult question but I suggest that the international
organizations, NGOs, can create some occupations for them."
resettlements may come soon - Sothy says several Phnom Penh squatter communities
will have to move in July, to make way for new sewage canals - though the
Trapeng Reang experience may make NGOs reluctant to participate.
NGOs, however, are proposing projects to look at the resettlement issue and
encourage cooperation between the authorities and
Representatives of Britain's Overseas Development Agency -
said to be considering putting $1-1.5 million into squatter site improvements or
resettlements - are due in Phnom Penh this month.
The United Nations
Development Program (UNDP) also has $350,000 to put into joint projects
involving squatters, NGOs and the municipality.
Robert Deutsch - who has
taken squatter leaders to Bombay and Bangkok to look at squatter problems - says
people on all sides of the issue must move now to find sustainable
Overseas experience shows the drift of provincial people to
Phnom Penh will continue, he says, and unless there is adequate housing many
will become squatters.
Says Jonathan Price: "It's not going to go away.
But the squatter population here is still quite small.
"If the government
moves to do something, maybe it can limit the problem. If they sit back and
wait, it will only get worse."