The number of poor people in Cambodia has halved since 2014, from 5.6 million to 2.8 million in 2022, according to a UN report.
But while access to electricity, sanitation and nutrition increased, school attendance did not see the same degree of improvement. The population of urban poor families with a child not attending school increased from 4% to 7%, possibly due to school closures during the pandemic.
Im Pheakdey, 16, who lives along the railway at Tuol Kork with his mother, stopped attending school in grade five so that he could help earn an income for his family. His mother, Say Saroeun, earns about 25,000 riel per day from collecting bottles and other items off the street.
Speaking to his mother, he said, “You asked me to go to school, but I could not go because I saw you work very hard and it was difficult. I did not want to go to school anymore.”
Pheakdey left school to start working in construction, earning 30,000 riel a day carrying bags of cement.
A resident of Russey Keo, 38-year-old Hang Sokleang, says her 6-year-old son does not attend school because her husband is their sole source of income, working as a construction worker earning 30,000 riel per day.
“I have not been able to send him to school yet. We would have to pay for clothes, a school bag, supplies and his daily food,” she said.
There’s been “a disturbing rise in out-of-school children” in Cambodia, according to the report produced by the United Nations Development Programme and the Oxford Poverty and Human Development Initiative. In 2014, 12.7% of the population lived with a child who was not going to school. By 2022, that number had shot up to 23%.
While the publication states that one in five Cambodians moved out of poverty between 2014 and 2022, significant rural to urban migration complicates the picture. Rural areas saw a major decrease in poverty, using the global Multidimensional Poverty Index metric, while urban areas had no significant reduction.
Rapid migration to Phnom Penh also factored into survey results published last month by the Cambodian NGO Sahmakum Teang Tnaut (STT). While the study found that the capital’s overall number of urban poor settlements have decreased since 2017, some new settlements have formed due to migration to the city, as well as economic and climate factors.
A portion of the decrease in settlements can be attributed to evictions. More than a third of all of the urban poor settlements are likely located on state land and therefore at risk of eviction, the report states.
Seang Muoylay, director of STT’s Housing Rights and Research Project, said a reduction in the number of settlements does not necessarily mean people are better off, as some communities have been forced to leave their homes.
“The poor are always in an unclear situation, because they don’t have documents to clarify about where they are living and that makes them more vulnerable,” he said.
He added that many of the respondents to the STT survey were struggling with debt, which can exacerbate other issues including homelessness, forced migration, debt bondage and food insecurity.
Saroeun, for example, said debt is one of the expenses that forces her to work when she is sick, along with water, electricity and rent for her 3-by-5 meter dwelling in a settlement. Her home does not have proper sanitation facilities and water leaks through the roof when it rains.
“When I am sick, my son asks me not to go [collect garbage to resell]. But if he doesn’t want me to go, how can we get the money to pay for the home,” she said. “Even though I am sick, I have to work too. If I don’t go we don’t have food to eat.”
Every day she worries that authorities will evict her and her son from where they live along the railway.
“If I was evicted from my current place, I do not know where I would go. My current rental home is unsafe, but I have no choice and do not have the ability to find a new home,” she said. “It is very difficult. Some nights, I cannot sleep the whole night.”
Government assistance through the ID Poor program eases some of the burden on Cambodia’s poor communities, but the STT report found that only 37% of Phnom Penh’s settlements reported ID Poor access for all poor families in their communities.
Saroeun told CamboJA that she has an ID poor card and receives around $60 per month and free access to healthcare. But Ven Peaktra, a single mother of three children who also lives along the railway at Boeung Kak, asked that authorities provide those same benefits to her family.
“I want a poor ID card, it is very important for me and my family. It could seriously help us when we have health problems,” she said. “I have seen other families who are better off than me that get poor ID cards but the poor really can’t get them. I hope they will give them to the real poor people.”
Am Sam Ath, operations director at the human rights NGO Licadho, said that the government needs to invest in better infrastructure and housing for poor communities, in addition to making it easier to get access to social services.
“We recognize that the government has provided social protection packages for the poor and it should continue this mechanism. But Poor ID cards should be provided to citizens in a transparent and targeted manner,” he said.
Government spokesperson Pen Bona said the government is expanding its ID poor policy and making it easier for those eligible to access hospital care for free, and has developed a strategy for promoting the informal economy.
“The government has to do everything to develop the country and help poor people,” he said.
Bona claimed that there are few people who live in unsanitary settlements, and that the government helps poor communities find proper housing. STT’s survey recorded 191 urban poor settlements in Phnom Penh in 2022.
“The government and authorities want the people to move to a new proper settlement. But sometimes when we want them to leave for a new place, they protest. They do not want to go,” Bona said. “Then we are accused of evicting them.”
Sam Ath said that the risk of forced evictions from the government make Cambodia’s poor even more vulnerable, and even when land titles are given to residents by the government, they still face challenges.
“We have observed that, in the past, some of the land issues of poor communities have been solved by the authorities, and in some cases, development land titles have been issued,” he said. However, “we see some cases when poor residents have to develop the area by themselves by using their land title as collateral, leading to microfinance debt problems due to lack of income.”