Borei Keila Community Relocation, a derailed social project in Cambodia's capital

Published on May 23, 2007
Ongoing demolishing in Borei Keila

In 2003 it was touted as a great leap forward into developing a social housing program, an alternative to the widespread forced land evictions in Cambodia. Four years later, in May 2007, men, women and children are living under tarpaulins amid the rubble of their demolished houses. This is the plight of families living at Borei Keila in the heart of Cambodia's capital.

A brief history
Borei Keila, located opposite the Bak Tuok High School in central Phnom Penh in Veal Vong commune of 7 Makara district, covers 14.12 hectares of land and it is divided into 10 communities. It houses at least 1,776 families including 515 families who are house renters and 86 families who reportedly have HIV/AIDS. Villagers first settled on the land, the site of a former police training facility, in 1992.

In early 2003, in the lead up to the July 2003 general election, a "land-sharing" arrangement was proposed for Borei Keila, which would allow a private company to develop part of the area for its own commercial purposes while providing alternative housing to the residents there. The idea was hailed because, rather than the villagers being evicted, they would be compensated for the loss of their land by being given apartments in new buildings to be constructed on part of the site.

In June 2003, Prime Minister Hun Sen authorized a social land concession on approximately 4.6 hectares (30% of the total 14.12 hectares of land). Construction giant Phanimex Company was contracted by the government to construct 10 apartment buildings on 2 hectares of land for the villagers, in return for getting ownership of 2.6 hectares to commercially develop.

Municipal and district authorities conducted a survey of the area, and as a result a list of 1,776 families who should receive apartments was drawn up. As well as house owners, this included renters who had lived in Borei Keila for at least three years.

Construction on the first three of the 10 new apartment buildings began in September 2004.

Apartment Allocation Process

While some have moved into the newly built apartments (back), other are left on the building site without being informed what will happen next and all the while their houses are being dismantled
In March 2007 the first three buildings, A, B and C, were completed. On March 5, the Phnom Penh municipality allocated apartments in buildings A and B to 87 families. Over the next few weeks the municipality would allocate apartments in buildings A and B to a further 244 families. Allegations of corruption in the allocating of apartments were rife.

In order to clear land to make way for the construction of the next seven apartment buildings, the authorities quickly moved to evict other families from their houses. These families' homes were demolished without them being given apartments in the three buildings already constructed, leaving them at the mercy of corrupt community leaders and officials who demanded money in exchange for the promise of an apartment.

The reason for the authorities' haste was they wanted the land cleared in time to hold a televised ground-breaking ceremony for the construction of the seven new buildings days before the April 1 commune elections.

As the authorities still sought to present Borei Keila as a model inner-city development project which protected the housing rights of the poor, the reality was very different. More than 100 evicted families were camped in the rubble of destroyed houses on a small strip of land.

Alerted by the worsening situation, LICADHO and UN Habitat became involved and questioned local authorities over the lack of transparency in the allocation of apartments. It was evident that at least some of the homeless families living in squalid conditions were registered in the 2003 survey and eligible for apartments.

Days before the commune elections, authorities agreed to create a joint committee, including municipal and district officials, community representatives and LICADHO and UN Habitat, to review the cases of homeless families. The committee reviewed the cases of 90 families (mostly renters) and found that 28 of them were eligible for apartments. The list was submitted to the municipal governor for a final decision.

After the commune elections, the committee process fell apart. The municipal governor did not give approval for the 28 selected families to be given apartments. The municipality began to suggest that no families who had rented (rather than owned) houses at Borei Keila would be given free apartments despite the fact that in 2003 the municipality had committed to giving apartments to all renters who had lived there for at least three years.

Finally, only four additional families received apartments three of them were among the 28 families considered eligible by the committee, but the fourth was not. The remaining families were not told clearly whether their cases were definitely rejected or not, and there were renewed allegations of community representatives or officials seeking bribes in return for the promise of an apartment.

In addition, there are 28 other families who are all affected by HIV/AIDS and were given temporary shelter in a large green shed at Borei Keila after their homes were demolished whose cases have yet to be considered. At least some of them are also eligible for apartments but there is no indication of if and when they will get them.

Ongoing Difficulties

Lack of transparency by the authorities during the relocation process led to several heated discussion between the community and officials
So far, the Phnom Penh municipality has only allocated apartments to just 335 families including 14 HIV/AIDS-affected families. This leaves 181 families without apartments in hazardous health conditions. According a survey conducted by LICADHO, of the 181 families there are 123 families living under tarpaulins in the debris of destroyed houses.

The 123 families living under tarpaulins, including 248 children and 6 HIV/AIDS-affected families, face many grueling hardships. Most pressing is the lack of sanitation, which along with poor nutrition, squalid living conditions and the coming rainy season, means their situation gets worse each day. Without proper shelter or toilets, living amongst building debris and dirty puddles of water, the villagers are at great risk of diarrhea and other illnesses. Most of the people do not go to work because they are perpetually waiting for a resolution to come and are afraid of losing their property if they leave.

The 28 HIV/AIDS-affected families who are temporarily staying in the green shed which will likely flood in the rainy season are particularly vulnerable to poor sanitary conditions and inadequate nutrition.

Medical and Food Assistance

As of today, the poorest were left camping in squalid conditions, uncertain of their fate and what will happen next
LICADHO's medical team has been providing treatment for homeless villagers at Borei Keila two to three times a month. The team provides medical treatment to approximately 50 to 60 villagers including about 20 children each time. The team has also referred 9 pregnant women for medical checks. LICADHO has also provided food and material assistance to villagers who have HIV/AIDS.

The Borei Keila development which was supposed to be a model to show the government's commitment to housing for the urban poor has been derailed. The process to allocate apartments has been rife with allegations of corruption, nepotism, an unfair evaluation criteria and a lack of transparency and commitment to honoring past promises. Unless urgent action is taken by authorities to tackle these issues, and restore transparency and fairness to the process, the credibility of the project and the government will continue to suffer. The ultimate victims will remain the families living amongst the rubble as they hope to be given apartments.