detention center

“My hands are tied,” the policeman says. “I’ve got to follow orders, or I will lose my job, and be in poverty myself.” A modest fire burns on the pavement, and a family’s possessions go up in smoke.
Simon Springer, an associate professor from The University of Victoria, Canada, was out conducting research for his PhD. He was in the middle of an interview with a mother when a scout sounded the alarm. In areas of Phnom Penh densely populated by homeless people, it’s not uncommon for someone to climb a tree on the lookout for raiding police.

There’s no time to waste. If there are any homeless people left when the police arrive, they will be driven to a random province and dumped there, with the hope they never return to the city.

“Don’t worry,” Simon said to her, “I’ll tell them you’re with me, and they will leave you alone.” She obviously knew more than he did, because she didn’t listen. In a moment she had picked up her daughter and was running with the others.”

When the police arrived, only Simon was left. Vexed, they collected whatever possessions were left behind, and burnt them. Simon approached the leader, “You have no right to burn their things. Why are you doing this?” The man was actually sympathetic, but felt powerless to do anything but follow orders.


Homeless in Phnom Penh are afraid, and with good reason.
The beautification of the city (a.k.a. gentrification) has meant countless people have been taken to the countryside, where there are very few ways to make a living. They are left with little choice but to walk back to the city, which often takes 3 to 4 four days.

With people returning, the government decided they would need to teach people a lesson before they isolated them from the city – so they took them to Prey Speu.

Photo from the Phnom Penh Post

Prey Speu has been open since 2004, and is now infamous for its human rights abuses. Homeless people, among sex workers, and drug addicts, are taken to this detention center located 12km from the city center.
In what the Cambodian government calls a ‘social affairs center’, homeless people and sex workers have been beaten, raped and killed – article by The Guardian.

The guards, who should be preventing these atrocities, are in fact the ones committing them: One woman said “After questioning us, the police pushed me into a room where there was a folding bed—it is for detaining criminal suspects. I was raped by five police officers on the first night and by six other police officers on the second night. They beat me while raping me because I protested. – Human Rights Watch, Off The Streets, p. 4

Over 100 people are forced to stay in one room for 23 hours a day, and to defecate and urinate into a bucket. A detainee said to Simon, “This place is worse than prison.”

When he went into Prey Speu to investigate, a 53 year old detainee said to him: “There’s a lot of secrets here so that’s why don’t want me talking to you, and I kind of know it… they are bad secrets, not good ones. Do you know what I mean?” – Cobra, May 2010. His inspection of the center confirmed that the conditions were in fact as bad as reported by the homless.


Since Simon’s visit, the center closed in 2012 due to the onslaught of allegations, but re-opened shortly after under the name ‘Por Sen Chey Vocational Training Centre.’

The facility seems to have changed in name only, with regular reports of subhuman conditions emerging from the centre.” – Phnom Penh Post, 20 Feb, 2015


I found it hard to believe, listening to Simon tell us these stories. How can the leaders of Cambodia allow such abuses of human rights? Especially with the Khmer Rouge genocide in such recent history  – where conditions were much the same at the S21 prison camp.

Then I ask myself: how can the leaders of Australia allow Manus Island to happen? Or Nauru? How can so many people become deaf and blind to the suffering of others?

Prey Speu is still operational today.


“What keeps us from opening ourselves to the reality of the world? Could it be that we cannot accept our powerlessness and are only willing to see those wounds that we can heal? Could it be that we do not want to give up our illusion that we are the masters over our world and, therefore, create our own Disneyland where we can make ourselves believe that all events of life are safely under control? Could it be that our blindness and deafness are signs of our own resistance to acknowledging that we are not the Lord of the Universe? It is hard to allow these questions to go beyond the level of rhetoric and to really sense in our innermost self how much we resent our powerless.”
-Henry Nouwen

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