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Sweep given green light

A child wanders through waiting traffic as she tries to sell jasmine flowers at traffic lights in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon
A child wanders through waiting traffic as she tries to sell jasmine flowers at traffic lights in Phnom Penh yesterday afternoon. Vireak Mai

Sweep given green light

In an apparent continuation of efforts to clear Phnom Penh’s streets of beggars, street sellers and homeless adults and children, City Hall is turning its attention from the riverside and Russian Market areas to major intersections around town.

In a statement released on Monday, City Hall said that it will use six intersections across the capital as model areas where beggars and street sellers will no longer be allowed.

“The authorities always receive strong criticism from the public about homeless people begging there,” the statement says, adding that the ban will soon be expanded to include other areas of the city.

Standing at one of the targeted areas, a traffic stop near Derm Kor market, a 27-year-old flower seller told the Post that the ban has halved his daily income.

“I used to earn 20,000 riel [$5] a day from selling flowers, but now I can earn only 10,000 riel, because I can only sell at lunchtime or times when the police are not here,” said the seller, who asked not to be named.

“We’re afraid the police will catch us. We only sell flowers at traffic lights, we don’t do anything to hurt anyone.”

But Ouk Sovan, deputy program director at Pour un Sourire d’Enfant (PSE), one of the NGOs partnering with City Hall, said the ban was intended to improve the lives of those targeted.

Sovan said the areas would be monitored so that street children could be identified and offered “housing, meals or schooling”.

City Hall’s announcement comes just weeks after a directive signed by Phnom Penh Deputy Governor Seng Ratanak was issued, ordering 12 district governors and the municipal social affairs department to remove homeless people from public areas.

The initiative was packaged as an effort to combat human trafficking and to offer useful vocational training. However, several eyewitnesses told the Post last week that children as young as 7 years old were rounded up in caged vans and taken to the city’s notorious Prey Speu social affairs centre against their will, where they spent much of the two to three days they stayed there cleaning and collecting rubbish.

A Human Rights Watch report released last year highlighted abuses at Prey Speu, with a former detainee who was held there in 2012 claiming that she was beaten by two guards for asking to go to the toilet.

Twelve-year-old beggar Toch Ta said that he spent three days at the centre before being collected by his grandmother.

Now back on the streets, Ta said he fears being taken there again.

Two children wait for a red light to sell their wares to commuters yesterday in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district
Two children wait for a red light to sell their wares to commuters yesterday in Phnom Penh’s Daun Penh district. Vireak Mai

“I am scared, but I need to make money for my family by begging,” he said, adding that since his parents abandoned him, the money has been crucial to he and his grandmother’s survival.

Despite the accounts, authorities have denied that Prey Speu was used in the street sweep.

Son Sophal, director of the Social Affairs Department – which a member of staff at Prey Speu claimed visited the centre while the homeless people were there – said the facility was all but shuttered in 2012 and no longer a collection point for the city’s undesirables.

“There are not many people at the centre, just a few elderly people and people with mental illness,” Sophal said yesterday.

The Prey Speu staff member, who asked not to be named, told the Post that there are less than half a dozen people permanently in residence.

But on June 12, two days after the first city sweep, representatives of the Office of the United Nations High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) visited the centre and saw about 40 people inside.

Bushra Rahman, OHCHR communications specialist, said that more than 30 people were “permanent residents staying voluntarily”.

“They are mostly elderly or homeless persons, and/or persons living with psycho-social disabilities,” she said by email.

Another six to seven people with psychosocial disabilities were detainees, she said.

While OHCHR saw dozens more people than the staff member said are currently in residence, Rahman said there were no “signs of the people detained from the street sweeps still being held at the Center” during their visit.

She added that the centre was not equipped to offer vocational training despite being officially rebranded as the Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre last year.

“The facility remains run down and the staff fundamentally ill-equipped, [and] ill-trained to deal with the needs of the people kept there, and generally unaware of the purpose of the centre,” she said.

“With respect to the [Por Sen Chey] Center, there is no legal authority to order detention there on any grounds. However, the needs of the people in the centre are real . . . What they need is tailored care, not arbitrary detention.”

This article has been amended. Due to a typographical error, a flower seller's wage in riel and dollars did not match. The figures have been corrected.

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