Misery of Haiti earthquake survivors continues

Already devastated by the loss of their homes in the earthquake of 2010, the displaced people living in Haiti's tent cities now face the constant threat of violence, disease and eviction. By Justin Frewen.

On 12 January 2010, Haiti was devastated by an earthquake which struck some 10 miles southwest of the capital Port-au-Prince. Recording 7.0 on the Richter scale, it left an estimated 220,000 people dead, and over 300,000 more injured. Haiti’s already inadequate infrastructure was also severely affected as the earthquake damaged or destroyed as many as 250,000 homes according to the Haitian government and the United Nations Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) - leaving around 1.5 million people homeless – and 4,000 schools. Already one of the poorest countries in the world, the earthquake was a natural disaster that the country could well have done without.

For a number of weeks after the earthquake, the media were full of stories of the misery that had been inflicted upon the Haitian people, the aid efforts and the dispatch of US troops to allegedly quell any potential social disturbances in the aftermath of this natural disaster. There was also discussion about how Haiti might be helped to recover from the catastrophe that had befallen the country and whether they should be entitled to debt relief.

However, Haiti’s problems did not start with this earthquake, calamitous though it undoubtedly was. As discussion in the media centred on how the international community was trying to respond to the needs of the Haitian people in this difficult period, it is important to bear in mind that one of the reasons Haiti was so vulnerable to a disaster of this sort was due to exploitation by external forces. As Yves Engler explains:

Technically "independent" for more than two centuries, outsiders have long shaped the country's affairs. Through isolation, economic asphyxiation, debt dependence, gunboat diplomacy, occupation, foreign supported dictatorships, structural adjustment programs and "democracy promotion", Haiti is no stranger to the various forms of foreign political manipulation.

In 1825, just two decades after Haiti had wrested its freedom from France though a rebellion of its slaves, the newly autonomous state was coerced by France into agreeing to pay 150 million francs (equivalent to €15 billion today) as recompense for its lost chattel – basically human slaves - in order that it might be recognised as a sovereign republic. Less than a century later, the US State Department-National City Bank of NY (Citibank) purchased Haiti’s only commercial bank and national treasury. To protect this investment, President Woodrow Wilson sent US troops to occupy Haiti in 1915 and they remained there until 1934. During this occupation, 40% of Haitian GDP was appropriated by US bankers. Despite troop withdrawal in 1934, the US retained control over Haiti’s finances until 1947.

Such interference has seriously enfeebled the Haitian political system and left it dominated by an elite that caters almost exclusively to the wishes of the wealthy and powerful as well as influential international actors while completely failing to act on behalf of the needs of the ordinary Haitian people. As a result the majority of the people of Haiti have been progressively impoverished and forced to exist in ever greater deprivation.

Nowhere can this be more clearly seen than in the manner in which the surviving victims of the Haitian earthquake have been treated. In the wake of the earthquake, hundreds of thousands of Haitians were forced to relocate and seek shelter where they could. Many are still living in temporary and inadequate accommodation where they struggle to survive as best they can with still no end in sight to their plight.

Many of these displaced persons (IDPs) live in tent cities. Already impoverished and having lost most of their possessions in the earthquake they are frequently ignored in terms of public services. In many camps, residents have no access to free, potable water. This has become an even greater problem since the outbreak of a serious cholera epidemic which by 31 July last had resulted in almost 6,000 fatalities, according to the Health Ministry. Families are therefore frequently obliged to dip into their meagre resources to purchase drinking water.

The tents camps have also become very dangerous due to a lack of security and adequate management. Women, chil­dren and the elderly are particularly at risk of violence. Many women IDPs have had to assume responsibility for children whose parents were lost during the earthquake, which adds to their vulnerability.

As one IDP, Malya Villard-Appolon, testified at a meeting of the United Nations Human Rights Council in Geneva in June 2010:

“I live in a camp – in a tent in a camp – and I am a wit­ness of the vio­lence against women and girls who live in the camp all around me and I’m also a wit­ness to the government’s response, a response which is entirely insuf­fi­cient.”

Their situation is further aggravated by the lack of assistance or protection provision on the part of the authorities, together with the inadequate response of the international community who have assumed responsibility for many camp services under the umbrella of the UN cluster system. At the very least, there is an urgent need to ensure the provision of adequate management facilities to maintain the sanitation, (potable) water and other critical camp services as well as to provide protection from violence for the most vulnerable.

Local authorities appear more concerned with evicting residents from these tent camps, irrespective of their situation. Despite the new President Martelly’s claim on 21 July that his government is opposed to forced evictions, there is little evidence of any attempts on the part of his administration to prevent them. Indeed, the reality would appear to be exactly the opposite.

Forced evic­tion on the part of both government agencies and private landowners using the local police force has become ever more common. This has led to increased violence in the camps with state officials demolishing one camp with a bulldozer and actively preventing the residents from gathering up their few belongings. Residents of camps have also been shot with rubber bullets during such evictions and there have been a number of arbitrary arrests.

While IDPs wish for nothing more than to be able to leave these camps, there is currently nowhere for them to go. Moreover, although the Inter­na­tional Orga­ni­za­tion for Migra­tion (IOM) revealed in a March 2011 survey of IDPs that there had been a decline in their number in IDP camps located in Croix-des-Bouquets, Del­mas, and Port-au-Prince, they also found that those who had left had experienced difficulty finding suitable places to live. In fact, a significant number had been obliged to seek refuge in “pre­car­i­ous and tem­po­rary sit­u­a­tions in the neigh­bor­hoods”.

Urgent action is therefore required on the part of the Haitian authorities – and indeed the international community – to ensure the provision of suitable accommodation for the families and individuals stranded in these camps.

In the first few weeks after Martelly came into office in May, there was an increase in forced evictions with government officials unlawfully shutting three camps and forcing 1,000 residents out without arranging for any alternative accommodation. On 19 May, Martelly told a settlement of some 10,000 IDPs on the outskirts of Port-au-Prince that they would have to vacate their temporary shelters to make way for a factory. There was no reference to any alternative housing. According to the UN Office for the Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) one in five people are confronted with the constant threat of forced eviction every day.

The illegal forced evictions persist despite a ruling by The Inter-American Com­mis­sion on Human Rights (IACHR) in November 2010 in which precautionary measures were issued to the Haitian gov­ern­ment that a mora­to­rium on evic­tions and a range of other measures should be immediately enforced in order to protect those who had been left homeless by the earthquake.

In response to the non-compliance of the Haitian government, the Center for Constitutional Rights (CCR), Insti­tute for Jus­tice & Democ­racy in Haiti (IJDH), Bureau des Avocats Inter­na­tionaux (BAI), You.Me.We., and TransAfrica Forum filed a joint petition to the IACHR to take fur­ther action on the increas­ingly urgent issue of forced evic­tions tak­ing place in Haiti’s dis­place­ment camps hous­ing hun­dreds of thou­sands of earth­quake survivors.

The formal petition reports to the IACHR that:

“The Gov­ern­ment of Haiti does not appear to have adopted or imple­mented the Commission’s rec­om­men­da­tions, or even des­ig­nated a pub­lic agency to over­see imple­men­ta­tion. To the con­trary, the GOH con­tin­ues to exe­cute a pat­tern of forced evic­tions, on both pub­lic and pri­vate land, and to par­tic­i­pate in or fail to pre­vent evic­tions by pri­vate indi­vid­u­als.”

As Vince War­ren, Exec­u­tive Direc­tor of the Cen­ter for Con­sti­tu­tional Rights, observes:

“Inter­nally Dis­placed Per­sons have the right to live in the camps while a com­pre­hen­sive hous­ing plan is put into prac­tice. We are talk­ing about a pop­u­la­tion that has no-where else to go. The evic­tions tak­ing place are ille­gal under both Hait­ian law and inter­na­tional law, and we hope the Inter-American Com­mis­sion on Human Rights will inter­vene and urge this new gov­ern­ment of Haiti to enact a mora­to­rium on evic­tions immediately.”

At the same time as urging the IACHR to take further action to prevent forced evictions, and guarantee safety and good living conditions in the camps, the updated petition also asks the Court to encourage the Haitian government to strengthen the capacity of its public housing agency so that the housing and accommodation needs of the residents of the tent camps can be met. Jeena Shah, an attorney with BAI notes:

“The Hait­ian gov­ern­ment can best pro­tect dis­placed per­sons from forced evic­tions by facil­i­tat­ing their access to ade­quate and afford­able hous­ing.”

In parallel with petitioning the IACHR, the BAI and other bodies work closely with local camp residents in supporting their struggle to have their human right to a place to live respected. On 1 June, the BAI filed a com­plaint with Haiti’s National Pros­e­cu­tor against Delmas Mayor Wil­son Jeudy’s involvement in the recent spate of ille­gal evic­tions in dis­place­ment camps established after the Jan­u­ary 12, 2010 earth­quake. The same day, a number of grass­roots human rights orga­ni­sa­tions together with tent camp res­i­dents staged a protest in the morning at the Min­istry of Jus­tice, as the com­plaint was being filed.

It is essential organizations such as the IJDH and BAI are supported in their efforts to protect homeless IDPs living in tent camps. Pressure needs to be brought on the government of Haiti and local authorities as well as international donors, the UN and the international community to both prevent further forced evictions and ensure the provision of suitable housing to facilitate the return of camp residents to a normal way of life.

For further information on the situation on the ground or how you might become involved in protecting the rights of the most vulnerable people in Haiti, visit the IJDH website and BAI

Image top: United Nations Photo.