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A resident of a "Red Zone" carries bags of rice donated to his house during the coronavirus pandemic. © 2021 Andy Ball / SOPA Images/Sipa USA

(Bangkok) – The Cambodian government should urgently address the economic and social impacts of the Covid-19 pandemic, which disproportionately harm Cambodia’s low-income population, Human Rights Watch said today. Recent severe lockdowns especially affected impoverished or unemployed people.

On May 11, 2021, the government introduced an “emergency social assistance program” to provide one-time cash transfers to low-income households, those affected by Covid-19 lockdowns, and families with members who died of or were infected with the coronavirus. The first cash transfers were scheduled for early June. While urgent social assistance is needed, the program should be expanded to safeguard the rights to an adequate standard of living, health, and social security. Identifying at-risk households and providing cash transfers should be transparent and closely coordinated with the United Nations Country Team in Cambodia and development partners, Human Rights Watch said.

“Millions of Cambodians are going hungry and fear losing their homes during the pandemic because there is no government social protection system,” said Brad Adams, Asia director at Human Rights Watch. “Sporadic one-off cash transfers won’t address basic needs. The Cambodian government should provide timely social protection to everyone in need under a social protection system that protects rights and contributes to an equitable recovery.”

Since the Covid-19 pandemic began in 2020, hundreds of thousands of low-wage workers in the garment, entertainment, and tourism sectors have been laid-off or suspended. Few have sufficient savings or have received adequate government subsidies to sustain them.

In late May, Human Rights Watch interviewed five low-wage workers in the entertainment sector in Phnom Penh whose work was suspended on March 1 and who have received 40 percent of their salaries from their employer since then. Starting in April, all were locked down for up to 35 days in one of the so-called “red zones” in Phnom Penh, areas with a total of at least 300,000 people that were considered high risk for Covid-19 transmission. Residents were prohibited from leaving their homes, even to purchase food.

The government’s food aid in red zones was haphazard and selective, and relief packages were inadequate and insufficient to address the food emergency, as was reported by media outlets and Human Rights Watch and other nongovernmental organizations. Government aid packages consisted of 25 kilograms of rice, six bottles of soy and fish sauce, and a carton of dried noodles per household, regardless of household size.

Residents told Human Rights Watch that the packages were not enough for their often-large households, and that no one had received more than one package. One family had not received any food though they were registered with the local village chief. None of those interviewed had received any other government support, “I had to eat what I had in the house,” said a 29-year-old mother of two children. “Only after 25 days did I receive a one-time food donation from the government.”

The interviewees said that they had coped with the lack of access to food and other necessities by skipping or rationing meals. “Lunch leftovers are eaten in the evening,” said Bin Sreynich, a 28-year-old mother and caretaker of her sick mother and grandmother. “We can’t afford to waste food.” Samol Ratanak, 29, who lives alone in a rented room, finished his remaining food after three days in lockdown and had to rely on his neighbors for help. All interviewees said they had relied on assistance from relatives, neighbors, or other networks.

“I’m most afraid of being caught in a debt trap,” said Ratanak, referring to the micro-loan that he has been unable to repay since his suspension from work in March. Others echoed this fear, saying that they had asked for suspension of their loan repayments. Their requests were denied, and lenders threatened them with blacklisting if they failed to repay, effectively banning them from taking out future loans though many low-income people depend on these loans to survive. 

Seng Naroeun, a 37-year-old mother of two children, said that she was suffering from severe anxiety because she was afraid the mortgage company would seize her house if she did not pay off her debt. She also did not have enough money for food for her family. “I lie to my children, saying that there is no food to buy,” she said. “But actually, it’s because we don’t have money to buy food.”

Monika Vann, a 29-year-old mother of two children and the family’s breadwinner, said that her financial situation worried her, and she feared that she soon would be unable to afford rent: “No home means we may become homeless.”

On May 20, the authorities removed the red zone designation, though food and economic insecurity remain.

In March 2021, the United Nations Development Programme (UNDP) estimated poverty to have almost doubled in Cambodia due to the Covid-19 pandemic, climbing to 17.6 percent of the population. A UN-led study in April “showed that in the last six months, households have increasingly adopted coping strategies to access food including reducing food intake, relying on cheaper options, and borrowing.”

The World Bank found that people who had escaped poverty prior to the pandemic only did so by a small margin, with about 4.5 million people remaining near poor and vulnerable to fall back into poverty upon exposure to economic shocks.

In reaction to the Covid-19 economic crisis, the government in April 2020 provided flat-rate partial wage subsidies to furloughed garment and tourism workers. The labor rights group the Centre for Alliance of Labour and Human Rights (CENTRAL) reported that implementation was flawed, with support not received or received late.

In June the government began monthly cash transfers through its “Identification of Poor Households (IDPoor) Program.” The Asian Development Bank reported that by October, the government had provided cash transfers to over 660,000 households, encompassing over 2.6 million people. The World Bank emphasized that while cash transfers mitigated the pandemic’s impact on people in poverty, they do not fully compensate for the loss of welfare.

Under the International Covenant on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights (ICESCR), to which Cambodia acceded in 1992, the government has an obligation to ensure the rights to social security and to an adequate standard of living, so that everyone enjoys the rights necessary to live in dignity, including the rights to adequate food and nutrition, health and well-being, water and sanitation, and housing. Countries with limited resources still have an obligation to ensure an adequate standard of living.

The Cambodian government has international legal obligations to establish under law a social protection system, defining people as rights-holders and guaranteeing them access. In its General Comment No. 19, the UN Committee on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights stated that the right to social security requires countries to ensure that benefits are adequate in amount and duration, and to respect human rights principles.

“Foreign governments, the UN, and international financial institutions providing financial assistance and Covid-19 emergency funds to the Cambodian government should work with the authorities to ensure that social protection is a top priority,” Adams said. “Donors should provide resources and technical assistance so that measures to ensure an adequate standard of living are independently monitored and reach all Cambodians.”

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