Phnom Penh, Cambodia

by Pierre Fallavier


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 by:

rural migrants fleeing the countryside because of indebtedness or lack of economic opportunities;

refugees returning from camps; and

internally displaced persons.

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:

Squatter settlements: these consist of dwellers and housing units on illegally occupied private or public lands.

Urban 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, provided that:

they receive security of tenure, education, training, credit and technical advice;

the MPP removes legal, procedural, financial and practical barriers to self-improvement;

urban poor communities, the government, NGOs and the private sector develop partnerships;

decisions on policies and programmes that affect the urban poor are made at the lowest possible level of government, in close consultation with those affected;

harassment by corrupt officials and the current lack of legal recourse by slum dwellers is addressed; and

the general perception of the problem of illegal squatters rises above the level of ‘places where anarchy and confusion reign’.

This summary 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', pp195-228.

top page

To read the full report, choose & click on one of the pdf icons below.

Document size: 1.8 MB

Document size: 1.4 MB (b&w)




2003 Development Planning Unit | Anna Soave | Khanh Tran-Thanh