Cambodian Sex Workers Arrested and Detained during “Street Sweeps”

Asia and the Pacific Regional Correspondent

Fourteen sex workers were arrested on the 24th of January in Cambodia, and taken to the infamous ‘rehabilitation’ centre known locally as Prey Speu.

This makes a total of 289 sex workers arrested in the last 13 months, according to the Cambodian sex workers’ union Women’s Network for Unity (WNU). These are only the cases WNU have been able to document. “Many others have been routinely arrested that we can’t capture in our outreach and program activities”, says WNUs’ Managing Director Samara Shehata.

“Street sweeps” in Cambodia are police operations to remove sex workers, homeless people and vendors from around certain areas such as temples. "Street sweeps" are often done before festivals or other high profile events.

Several laws are used to justify the arrests, including those related to public order. However, there is little doubt the purpose of the sweeps is to “clean” them.

The Cambodian Law of Suppression of Human Trafficking and Sexual Exploitation (2008) is strongly influenced by the USA’s anti-sex work framing of trafficking, that supposedly exists to protect people. However, the Cambodian police openly acknowledge using this law as a basis for arresting sex workers as part of street “cleaning” operations. According to WNU’s founder, Ms Keo Tha, the anti-trafficking legislation is part of the problem: “It’s a law used as an excuse to abuse the sex workers, so we want to get rid of these articles in the law.”

Foreign governments and NGOs that conflate trafficking with sex work pay little attention to the fact that being in custody is one of the most dangerous places for a sex worker in Cambodia. Bribes, extortion, theft, sexual harassment, violence and rape are reported frequently. WNU interviewed 250 street-based sex workers after the police had illegally detained them in 2015. Eighty percent of those interviewed reported cases of violence.

Police arrest is not the end of the journey for many sex workers caught up in “street sweeps.” While some are able to pay bribes or fines and secure release from custody, others are taken to detention or ‘rehabilitation’ centres. While officially these are not prisons, the conditions in these detention or ‘rehabilitation’ centres are far worse than in prisons. Food, water and sanitation are often inadequate, and detainees report physical and sexual violence. Healthcare is lacking too, and in 2015 detained sex workers living with HIV missed taking their medications while at the centre.

In recent years, other countries in the region have taken positive steps by either shutting down detention centres like these (Vietnam), or stopping sending sex workers to them (China).

Cambodia did the same, but later re-opened one of the most infamous detentions centres still known locally as Prey Speu. Now operating under the name of  “Por Sen Chey Rehabilitation Training Centre”, conditions are reported to be just as bad, if not worse. Two detainees died in the centre in November 2015.

Even when avoiding the street sweeps and ‘rehabilitation’ centres, sex workers in Cambodia face continued problems from police, including the use of condoms as evidence of sex work or ‘trafficking’. Arrests and raids often result in the closure of establishments such as massage parlours. This increases the risk of HIV because sex workers are afraid to carry or use condoms at work, and displaces sex workers into other, more risky environments including street-based sex work. Open Society Foundation has documented the harms of using condoms as evidence of sex work in their report "Criminalizing Condoms". 

In December 2015 a two-day national conference was held in partnership with UN Agencies for people in street situations. The purpose of the event was to enable Cambodian government ministries to better understand the complexities, needs and demands of the different communities involved in current street sweeps, arrests, and illegal detention.

There is little sign that the government is listening, however, and police officials continue to deny the existence of a problem or any responsibility for mistreatment of sex workers.