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Homeless, sex workers swept away for Xi visit

Detainees sit on the steps of a building at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu social affairs centre last month.
Detainees sit on the steps of a building at Phnom Penh’s Prey Speu social affairs centre last month. Erin Handley

Homeless, sex workers swept away for Xi visit

More than 50 people were rounded up from the streets of Phnom Penh in the early hours of yesterday morning, destined for the infamous Prey Speu detention centre, as city officials attempted to “clean” and “decorate” the city ahead of Chinese President Xi Jinping’s arrival.

The 53 individuals, consisting largely of the homeless, beggars and sex workers, were grabbed from areas around the Royal Palace, riverside and other parts of Daun Penh district, said Ouk Samal, Daun Penh district’s administration chief.

“We made a plan two days in advance to make our district clean and beautiful,” Samal said. “We did that especially on the big occasion of the arrival the Chinese delegation.”

The roundup had been promised a day before by City Hall spokesman Mean Chanyada.

“We have to round up the beggars, the homeless and sex workers to beautify our Phnom Penh for the special arrival of the Chinese president. We did that for the beauty and order of our Phnom Penh,” he said.

Daun Penh District Governor Kouch Chamroeun dismissed the roundup as a routine event, confirming it had been done specifically for Xi’s visit.

Such street sweeps ahead of state visits have long-established precedent. In 2012, ahead of an ASEAN summit, more than 800 street dwellers and sex workers were cleared from Phnom Penh streets.

Deputy director for Prey Speu Van Ngat said those grabbed yesterday were being held at the Ministry of Social Affairs and would be sent to Prey Speu soon. “We still have to document and classify them as homeless, underage or sex workers,” he said.

City officials have been routinely criticised for sending people to the notorious detention centre, which has been slammed by international rights groups and the United Nations for its inhumane conditions and lack of medical facilities.

Phil Robertson, deputy director for Asia at Human Rights Watch, said the centre was a “prime example of impunity to abuse rights” and was now being used to hide the poor and disadvantaged from a foreign leader. “It’s really outrageous that after all the many exposés of the violations that happen there, nothing ever changes,” he said.

James Sutherland, communications coordinator for Friends International, said such roundups were unacceptable, whatever the reasons offered, adding that only sustainable solutions “will actually get people off the streets and away from dangerous or risky life situations”.

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