Minister of Social Affairs, Veterans and Youth Rehabilitation Vong Soth told the Office of the UN High Commissioner for Human Rights (OHCHR) in Cambodia that he was pushing measures to improve the management of the Phnom Penh Social Affairs Centre, commonly referred to as Prey Speu.

Soth met with Roueida El Hage, country representative of the OHCHR, on February 7 to discuss helping victims and street children.

At the meeting, she requested that the minister discuss developments at Prey Speu as civil society groups have asked for the closure of the rehabilitation centre, citing incidents where they said people were left unattended until they died, in what they claimed to be serious human rights violations.

Soth responded that the municipal social affairs department had been making improvements to Prey Speu, claiming that officials had managed the centre well and provided it with technical assistance to bring it up to proper standards.

“We have reported the deaths and contacted Phnom Penh Municipal Hall to find medics to attend to them when they become ill or send to hospitals. We don’t leave them behind,” he said in reference to recent fatalities at the centre.

Early this year, rights group LICADHO released a report alleging persistent human rights violations at Prey Speu since the centre was opened in 2004. They reiterated calls for its closure.

In their report, the group said they had found that at least 10 people had died at the centre in July and August last year. They attributed the deaths to carelessness on the part of officers stationed there.

They alleged that a technical team had also found other violations of normal procedures and standards of care and requested that the centre director adjust its rules and change its staff.

Touch Channy, head of the ministry’s General Department of Technical Affairs, said officials are accelerating the process of reforming the centre on the recommendation of the minister following his meeting with EI Hage.

“We called a meeting with all of the directors of departments to look for solutions, especially to see where the homeless people at the centre come from. If the homeless person comes from a province, the department of that province must take them back and bring them to their home community.

“We will give them IDpoor cards to receive government benefits. So, the ministry is working hard to improve Prey Speu Centre,” he said.

He said the ministry will also consider repurposing the centre to convert it into a vocational training centre or for other purposes.

LICADHO deputy director Am Sam Ath said the centre had been problematic because its management was not clear between the ministry and the City Hall.

He said that in the past they had rounded up the homeless, beggars, sex workers and drug addicts and had taken them to the centre, which allegedly failed to take care of them and left them to die.

Rights group ADHOC spokesman Soeng Sen Karuna welcomed the idea of converting Prey Speu into a vocational training centre.

“If they want to keep Prey Speu running, it should be a place to provide skills for people who go to the centre, rather than bringing all homeless people there just to prevent anarchy on the streets and in public places by hiding them away,” he said.