Hundreds of families who live in floating houses on the shores of the Mekong and Tonle Sap rivers in as many as six districts on the outskirts of Phnom Penh are being threatened with eviction with just over a week’s notice. Following an order from Phnom Penh City Hall, many are now in the process of dismantling their whole lives, parents are contemplating leaving the place where they raised their children, families are tearing apart the structures they have called home for years — decades even. The reasons given by authorities for the relocation come down to questions of riverbank beautification.
Most of the families being forced out of their homes are ethnically Vietnamese and many have lived in this way, floating on the river, for generations. Many are families made up of children, parents, and even grandparents who were born in Cambodia, but who are not allowed to claim Cambodian citizenship. As Vietnam has been no more welcoming, these families have effectively been rendered stateless. These families live on the river out of necessity. Without Cambodian national identification cards, owning land is difficult at best, impossible at worst.
This decision on the part of Phnom Penh City Hall to force these people out of their homes isn’t just senselessly cruel, it also makes no sense, particularly given the backdrop of the global pandemic, and the ongoing community Covid-19 outbreak throughout the country.
If authorities do not see basic empathy alone as reason enough to halt this eviction, they should do so because it is what’s best for the health of the city, and the health of the country at large.
Simply put, the virus does not care where people come from, what their ethnicity is, and what form of identification they are able to carry around in their pockets.
Kicking people out of their homes is a dangerous thing to do in the midst of a pandemic for a multitude of reasons, particularly if those people come from a marginalized community already, as these families certainly do.
This eviction will take an already vulnerable group of people and put them in an even more precarious financial state. This process has, sadly, already begun. Fish farmers among those being evicted, for example, have said they’ve been left with no choice but to sell off their stock this week, regardless of fish maturity, which has meant settling for lower prices. One woman told VOD that in the rush to pack up she had sold fish she had invested $1,000 in raising for only a few hundred dollars. With so many in Cambodia living at the very margins between survival and destitution, does the government really want to push more people over the brink?
An eviction in the midst of a pandemic is also destructive when it comes to informal safety nets. While the economic fallout this pandemic has caused has hit Cambodia hard, people can be surprisingly resilient and many families have gotten by in these last few months on the strength of family, friendship, neighborhood and community support. Laying waste to a community like this will rob people of a source of support that has likely been responsible for keeping them afloat in the face of this outbreak.
Perhaps even more dangerously, by taking away a family’s home you are also taking away their best hope of being able to self-isolate and quarantine if they are exposed to the virus. That the government would render hundreds of families unable to protect themselves, and others, in this time is careless.
In a pandemic in particular, it is of the utmost importance that the government builds up connections with and prioritizes earning trust from vulnerable communities like this one. Instead, what little trust this community might have had in authority figures is likely gone, dismantled in the way their homes have been.
Being stateless means having limited access to health care even in the best of times. And, being stateless can also mean having an already fragile and embattled relationship with authorities.
This group, which has likely faced more challenges in receiving Covid-19 services including vaccinations, has also been made highly mobile, not only through the evictions but through their loss of livelihoods and their need to now find new paying work.
The actions of the government have likely made this community even more wary of contacting authorities to report any ill health. How can you expect people who have experienced such treatment on the part of the government to then turn to the government for help if they are exposed to the virus?
It should go without saying that the risks associated with this situation must not be used as yet another reason to stigmatize this community. These are not risk factors they asked for or brought upon themselves. Instead, these risks were thrust upon them by government actions. The virus does not discriminate; we should not either.
After February 20, we have all seen how quickly this virus can spread out from one community and cause widespread damage for everyone. This is the very essence of public health. Sickness or well-being in one person should be a concern for all.
But even after a year and a half of the pandemic it appears that the government still isn’t thinking in this way.
To weather this pandemic and minimize the damage, the whole of the Cambodian government must start to think differently. From the halls of power, down to the lowest rung on the ladder, every ministry, every office, every official must prioritize public health-oriented decision-making. Every single choice the government makes, every dollar or riel it spends, every policy it puts forward and every law it enforces must factor in the pandemic.
With each new decision, one question must be asked: Will this aid Cambodia against Covid-19 or will this hurt our chances of success?
It’s clear that this question wasn’t asked when City Hall decided to go ahead with this eviction. River “beautification” can wait, tackling the pandemic cannot.