At the end of the Pol Pot regime, returnees to Phnom Penh were authorized
to occupy buildings on a first-come, first served basis. The few
professionals alive occupied vacant dwellings close to the places
of employment in the civil service. These new owners took many centrally
located buildings, which some then subdivided and sold, even in
the absence of formal titles. Once all buildings were occupied,
people started to settle on vacant lands, creating the communities
that are now considered illegal. Low-income settlements were created
migrants fleeing the countryside because of indebtedness or lack
of economic opportunities;
returning from camps; and
Most came to Phnom Penh for economic reasons and settled close to
where they could earn a living. Afterwards, the slum population
increased through natural growth, through migration by relatives
of existing dwellers and through seasonal migrants. People who move
regularly in and out because of floods account for seasonal variation
in settlements sizes.
Two types of slums may be recognized:
settlements: these consist of dwellers and housing units
on illegally occupied private or public lands.
poor settlements: these comprise low-income families
with some sort of recognized occupancy.
However, there exists no clear distinction between legal and illegal
occupancy in Phnom Penh as all private ownership of land was abolished
in 1974, and no clear ownership system has since been implemented.
Almost no one has full ownership title and most city dwellers could
be considered squatters.
Slums on public lands largely developed along wider streets, railway
tracks, riversides and boengs (water reservoirs). On private lands,
slums tend to consist of squatting in dilapidated, multiple-occupancy
buildings. Increasingly, there is also rooftop squatting in and
around the city centre, while, since 1995, rural migrants have formed
squatter settlements at the urban periphery on marginal public lands.
Most slums are made of low-cost, recycled materials (paper, palm
leaves and old wood). These structures are vulnerable to winds and
heavy rains, and can be easily destroyed by fire. Those who own
brick and cement houses are typically better off.
The land tenure situation in Phnom Penh is complex as there is no
clear distinction between legal and illegal occupancy and/or ownership.
Although, recently, some have been granted social concessions by
the government, no family yet holds any certificate of ownership.
Families with a registration book may feel more secure than those
without, but it does not give them any strong claim to ownership.
These unclear rights of tenure make eviction a constant threat.
Most low-income settlers are officially regarded as squatters. Yet,
at least 75 per cent consider themselves owners of the plot that
they purchased from the local authorities or previous owner, who
themselves may not have ownership rights. Transactions are recorded
on handwritten receipts; although without any legal authority, it
is often enough to claim compensation in case of municipal relocation.
Renters are either short-term seasonal migrants or the poorest of
the poor who cannot afford to purchase in a squatter settlement
and rent on a weekly or monthly basis, with the constant threat
of eviction by their slum landlord.
Until 1998 to 1999, the Municipality of Phnom Penh (MPP) kept a
rigid position of not recognizing ‘squatters’ as legitimate
inhabitants of the city, and its agencies did not support development
activities to reach slum dwellers. Rather, they evict squatters,
often violently, without compensation or support to relocate.The
municipal efforts to develop tourism in Phnom Penh led to the removal
of many slum communities.
Nevertheless, the MPP and UN-Habitat, after consultations with NGOs
and community-based organizations (CBOs), developed an Urban Poverty
Reduction Strategy in 1999 to improve access to basic social and
physical infrastructure, enhancing economic opportunities and strengthening
participatory governance mechanisms.
In 2000, Prime Minister Hun Sen redefined squatter dwellers as ‘temporary
residents’, while publicly recognizing their economic value
to the city. He emphasized that helping them to rebuild new, liveable
communities in locationsoutside of the city had become a priority
of the municipality. This change of status coincided with a first
step of implementing the Urban Poverty Reduction Strategy (UPRS).
The term ‘squatter’, long used in Phnom Penh to classify
most inhabitants of low-income settlements, conveys much more than
a connotation of illegality. In Khmer, it refers to ‘people
living in anarchy’, and is strongly linked to immorality,
disorder and criminality. At the official level, this gives the
MPP grounds to refuse dialogue with squatters and not to acknowledge
the legitimacy of their claims for public recognition. This official
view is quite widely shared by the middle and upper classes, who
consider squatters an aesthetic nuisance to the city and a threat
to public order, all feelings based on the same stereotypes of anarchy
and reinforced by a poorly informed media. Relations between the
MPP and poor communities remain tense as, until recently, the MPP
did not engage in dialogue with representatives of squatters, who
were considered illegal. In this way, the most vulnerable populations
are not included in the political process.
MPP governance is severely restricted by the limited authority to
plan and finance its activities. Although the MPP officially gained
financial autonomy in 1998, its budget remains constrained as a
national law predefines all lines, the minister of interior must
approve the budget and the national assembly ratifies it. Besides,
the city has little power or incentive to raise its own revenue.
The UPRS, however, suggests that poor communities in Phnom Penh
can improve their living conditions and prospects for human development,
receive security of tenure, education, training, credit and technical
MPP removes legal, procedural, financial and practical barriers
poor communities, the government, NGOs and the private sector develop
on policies and programmes that affect the urban poor are made at
the lowest possible level of government, in close consultation with
by corrupt officials and the current lack of legal recourse by slum
dwellers is addressed; and
general perception of the problem of illegal squatters rises above
the level of ‘places where anarchy and confusion reign’.
has been extracted from:
UN-Habitat (2003) Global Report on Human Settlements 2003, The Challenge
of Slums, Earthscan, London; Part IV: 'Summary of City Case Studies',