Fifteen sex workers yesterday became the latest of the capital’s “undesirables” forced to call the long-pilloried Prey Speu detention centre home.
The latest targeted detention was criticised by rights advocates and gender experts alike, and comes just two months after Prime Minister Hun Sen demanded the centre – a dumping ground for the city’s homeless, addicts, mentally disabled and sex workers – be radically improved or shut down.
Wat Phnom commune police chief Un Sam Ath said the sex workers and two others had been arrested during a sweep of the Wat Phnom area between 8pm on Wednesday and 4am yesterday.
“We did this in order to get rid of prostitute women at the Wat Phnom tourist attraction,” he said. “They cause disorder and insecurity . . . and sometimes when their clients get drunk, they could cause further crime. When we clean them up, it also reduces [crime].”
The arrest falls in a legal grey area – while buying and selling sex are not illegal, under the anti-trafficking law, a sex worker who publicly solicits or “lures” payment for sex can be slapped with a fine.
Keo Tha, education officer at the Women’s Network for Unity, condemned the detention of the sex workers, highlighting that many were not homeless and had families to care for.
“When they are detained at Prey Speu, they cannot look after their children and they miss their HIV medicine – that violates their rights,” Tha said.
UNAIDS country director Marie-Odile Emond said her organisation was working with the Phnom Penh municipality on the issue but likewise expressed concern about the ongoing street arrests.
“[I]t is hard to understand how those women pose a threat to public security,” she said via email.
“HIV treatment is not systematically available. Some people kept at the center for weeks or even months have missed HIV treatment, which can have a serious impact on their health and actually for public health in general.”
While she noted minor improvements such as a toilet and health centre, which were yesterday touted by the ministry of social affairs, “the available medicines are very limited”.
Phil Robertson, deputy Asia director of Human Rights Watch, compared the latest round-up to “a bad movie re-run that never stops being shown”.
“The government is again violating sex workers’ rights by rounding them up and dumping them into detention in Prey Speu until they pay a bribe or otherwise escape,” he said in an email.
“As long as Prey Speu exists, it will be abused this way and so it should be shuttered, padlocked, and throw away the key.”