Forcible Evictions of HIV-positive Families in Cambodia

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Yesterday morning, the Cambodian government forcibly evicted about 20 families living with HIV/AIDS from their homes in Borei Keila and resettled them at Tuol Sambo, a resettlement site just outside the capital, Phnom Penh. The site lacks clean water and electricity and has limited access to medical services. Evicted families were compensated with inadequate housing at the site and 50 kilograms of rice, soy sauce, fish sauce, water jars and US$250, but they were warned that anyone who did not comply with the move would not receive compensation. A human rights worker present during the transition described the families as despondent and noted that those who are ill were exhausted by the move.

When Amnesty International visited the site – in a semi-rural area where houses are built from green metal sheets – villagers in the vicinity saw it as a place for HIV/AIDS victims. The evicted families expressed fears that being forced to live in this separate, distinct location will bring more discrimination and stigmatization than they already are forced to deal with because of their status as HIV-positive.

Forced evictions are a tactic Cambodia has employed more and more often, and this is not the first time the Cambodian government has taken this sort of action against people living with HIV-AIDS. In March 2007, the Municipality of Phnom Penh resettled an additional 32 families living with HIV/ AIDS against their will in temporary green, corrugated-metal shelters in appalling conditions to make way for the construction of a number of new houses. The families believe that the authorities are discriminating against them because of their HIV status.

Forced Eviction in the Name of Progress?

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A Group 78 resident holds up a drawing showing the size of the land to which she has strong claims. © CLEC 

A Group 78 resident holds up a drawing showing the size of the land to which she has strong claims. © CLEC

How many times, in how many countries, in how many cities, have we heard this story? Governments try to force poor people off land they’ve lived on for years, sometimes decades, so that it can be developed and put to “better use”. Who cares if they’re shoving people into slums with no running water or sewage system? Who cares if moving them will not only adversely affect their health but also their livelihood? After all, it’s the government’s responsibility to “clean up the trash” to make way for progress, right?

Tell that to the nearly 150 families in Phnom Penh, Cambodia who city authorities have threatened with forced eviction from land known as Group 78 since June 2006. Most are poor street vendors; some are teachers or low-level civil servants.  The area they would be moved to has no water supply or sewage systems, and the cost of transportation from there to city far exceeds the expected daily earnings of most street vendors and junior civil servants.

The families have applied for formal title to their land several times. They have official documentation proving that they have lived on the site for long enough to claim title, but the authorities have rejected all their applications. The community has even engaged architecture students to produce plans to develop the site while they are still resident in order to show that eviction is not essential for development.

Cambodia is certainly not the only country with housing rights issues, and the more you read, the more overwhelmed you can feel. How can we ever put a stop to it all? Well, you have to start somewhere, so I plan to write a letter for the residents of Group 78 in this year’s Write-a-thon.