Haiti’s displaced – How long must they clamour until they are heard?

By Chiara Liguori, researcher for the Caribbean at Amnesty International

Justine had her life torn apart when the January 2010 earthquake struck Haiti.

Her parents and several of her siblings were among the more than 200,000 who were killed in the disaster. She and her three kids were among the 1.5 million people who were made homeless. She also lost her job, as the factory where she used to work collapsed. Since then she has been living in a makeshift camp called Gaston Magwon in Carrefour, a neighbourhood in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince.

Daily life is a struggle for Justine. She has three kids but can’t afford to send them to school as she has no job and no family members to support her. Every day she must fight against disease as the camp lacks toilets, showers and water sanitation and has been recently swamped by garbage brought by floods. On the top of that, she lives in constant fear of being made homeless again, as the owners of the land where the Gaston Magwon camp is located are constantly threatening the residents with eviction – a fate already suffered by 150 families in February.

Sadly, Justine’s story is not much different from many others we have heard since Amnesty International has been visiting post-earthquake Haiti. Living conditions in the camps have become increasingly dire after many humanitarian NGOs left and the government stopped assisting the camp dwellers in 2011 out of fear of making them aid dependent. Forced evictions of internally displaced people (IDPs) have been ongoing since April 2010, both by private land-owners and by public authorities, as Amnesty International documented in the report, Nowhere to go – Forced evictions from displacement camps in Haiti, which was published in April this year.

The only difference is that the number of IDPs has, mercifully, gone down. From the initial estimation of one and half million people, the number of people living in displacement camps has now been reduced to about 280,000. Hundred thousands of people have been relocated through a programme of rental subsidies which lasts for one year. However, more than 16,000 families have been forcibly evicted and 24,000 are still living at risk of eviction.

A situation which emerged during this visit that we are about to conclude concerns the camps and informal settlements located in Canaan, a large plot of land in the outskirts of Port-au-Prince where IDPs settled after it was declared of public utility in March 2010. Thousands of people living there are under threat of forced eviction, exposed to intimidation and harassment from those who lay claim to the land. There is also absolute confusion over which portions of the land are of public utility - it seems that a second governmental decree reducing the size of the expropriated land was issued last year, but the information was never publicized.

As a result, hundreds of families living on the Lanmè Frape sector of Canaan, for example, have complained of repeated attacks from armed men and police officers who periodically destroy their humble shelters made of tarpaulins or metal sheets. The last incursions took place between 31 August and 4 September, when almost 400 shelters were destroyed. Then, on 18 September, police officers and armed men in plainclothes allegedly destroyed the shelters that people had rebuilt and took away some of their construction materials. As we witnessed firsthand, most of the families are now left with no shelter at all, or are taking refuge with some family members who also live in makeshift displacement camps.

In response to the Amnesty International report and to other pressure from the international community, at the end of April this year the Haitian government issued two statements publicly condemning forced evictions and expressing its commitment to take appropriate measures to halt the intimidation suffered by camp residents. This would include carrying out investigations into such actions and bringing the perpetrators to justice.

Those statements are certainly most welcome. However, for the people living on Lanmè Frape, Gaston Magwon and other camps at risk of forced evictions they have made no difference. They still haven’t seen any evidence of actions taken to deter alleged land owners from spreading the panic among them and from destroying their shelters and their livelihoods. On the contrary, residents of Lanmè Frape continue to see police officers aligning themselves with the alleged landowners in actions which are against Haitian law and international human rights standards.

This is why for the IDPs of Port-au-Prince there is no other way to celebrate World Habitat Day than marching across the capital to call for their housing rights to be respected. “Nou mandé bon jan kay pou tout moun” (We demand adequate housing for every person) was the main call of the hundred or so IDPs and activists who marched on 7 October from downtown Port-au-Prince to the Office of the Prime Minister. Once there, a delegation of IDPs handed over a manifesto recalling the recent cases of forced evictions and demanding concrete actions to respect, protect and fulfil the right to adequate housing.

Yesterday’s demonstration was the first we witnessed but was certainly not the first of its kind. For months now, IDPs have been mobilizing to demand their rights. How long must they clamour until they are heard?

Read more:
Warning: This video could make you furious (Blog, 3 October 2013)
Haiti: Forced evictions worsen the already dire lot of earthquake homeless (News story, 23 April 2013)
Haiti: 'Nowhere to go': Forced evictions in Haiti's displacement camps (Report, 23 April 2013)
‘We’ll throw you all out’ – Forced eviction threat for Haiti earthquake victims (Blog, 23 April 2013)
Haiti: Three years on from earthquake housing situation catastrophic (News story, 11 January 2013)