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Railway Presents Relocation Woes: Housing Advocate

Many will be evicted from their homes as the government, along with foreign aid agencies, restarts the country's long-unused railroad, in an effort to spur the economy and link up with the other economies of the Mekong River region of Southeast Asia.

A railway rehabilitation project under a loan from the Asian Development Bank will impact 4,000 families, and a housing rights advocate said Thursday the solutions for them are inadequate.

Eang Vuthy, a project manager for Bridges Across Borders, told “Hello VOA” that the families have not received enough compensation to relocate from the path of the rail line, while their businesses, jobs, and children’s education are in jeopardy.

Residents in the provinces of Battambang and Preah Sihanouk have already been moved, with negative results, he said.

“Those people are stifled in relation to their living, because the land that was exchanged for them is without enough infrastructure or programs to create businesses and jobs,” he said. The move from urban areas to relocation sites outside of town have meant a loss of jobs, work and school, he said.

“Some people received only $200 in exchange for leaving their houses, which were built near the railroad,” he said. “How can they live?”

In other countries, such projects entail clear plans on how to deal with evictions, he said. Those who live in the path of the railroad received fair compensation, shelter and means to find work and open businesses, he said. In Thailand, people who live within 20 meters of the proposed line receive rental housing for a certain amount of time, providing them an opportunity to find a new place to live.

“People are concerned about when they are going to change to a new place, so they dare not conduct business on their land, they dare not renovate their houses, and they feel frustrated,” he said. “We should review the examples of our neighbors and apply them to our country and clearly define when we are going to develop this land.”

One caller said he was given only $9 to leave his land in Banteay Meanchey province, but Eang Vuthy said this was illegal. Banteay Meanchey has not yet come up with a plan for rail projects, he said, and families should not be forced out ahead of time.

People cannot be forced off their land without a contract, he said, adding that there were commune, district and provincial authorities in place to help solve problems, along with the courts and the ADB.

The railway project is scheduled for completion by the end of 2013, but delays are possible as unexpected problems crop up. The plan calls for the rehabilitation of 600 kilometers of railway, between Phnom Penh and Preah Sihanouk, and Phnom Penh and Banteay Meanchey and Poipet.

Eang Vuthy said the ADB has allocated $3.5 million for the resettlement of residents, a figure he said was not enough.