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Human Rights Watch report underlines Cambodia’s draconian treatment of urban underbelly.
The issue came into the spotlight in 2008, after the government launched a contentious law that outlawed prostitution. In the months following the law's implementation, police carried out a series of raids on brothels and street-based prostitution that rights groups said gave police free rein to rape and rob sex workers they detained. They say the law has done little more than drive prostitution deeper underground, making sex workers more vulnerable to trafficking and pushing them further away from the public health groups that have been instrumental in curbing the country's HIV/AIDS rates.
“This sort of ‘cleaning’ the streets of undesirable people has been happening for a long time, but there’s been more attention towards it recently,” said Mathieu Pellerin, who works with the local rights group Licadho.
According to Pellerin, when a Licadho outreach team was able to gain access to one of the government’s main poorhouses in 2008, they found an elderly women in her dying moments being left untreated and a young mother nine months pregnant who would have given birth in her cell without any assistance had they not been able to convince the facility to release her.
The government has denied reports of violence and mistreatment in its facilities. “There’s no violence, rape, nothing like that” in the drug centers, said Neak Yuthea, who is head of the government’s rehabilitation program. “Drug addiction is a new problem in Cambodia. This is good for them. … Maybe Human Rights Watch wants to see the drug users living on the street.”
The government says most drug users are interned at the request of their families and that many homeless volunteer to live temporarily in the centers because they are given food, a roof over their heads, and, in some cases, basic vocational training. It has also cited a lack of resources in some cases to explain substandard facilities.
Licadho’s director, Naly Pilorge, says, however, it isn’t simply a matter of underperforming social welfare. “You have people who have done nothing wrong who are detained like criminals,” she said. “It could be a construction worker who doesn’t look like he belongs on the street where he is … or a poor-looking kid who is just walking along the street.”
Skyscrapers and condos are fast rising in Phnom Penh but rights groups here say real development will remain illusory as long as the government sweeps the country’s social problems under the rug.
Editor's note: The subheadline of this article has been changed to accurately reflect the nature of the Human Rights Watch report.