World Habitat Day: Governments must end the brutal practice of forced evictions (Op-Ed)

By Malavika Vartak, Amnesty International’s Researcher/Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

In the early morning biting cold of 23 July 2018, about 10,000 people in Nairobi’s Kibera slum watched in a sleepy haze as their homes and everything they owned were flattened by bulldozers to make way for the construction of the city’s missing link road that will connect Ngong Road and Langata Road. Schools, health centres and places of worship were also brought down, forcing more than 2,000 students to discontinue their schooling.

The scale and brutality of this forced eviction, a result of the government’s attempts to open more roads to deal with Nairobi’s traffic congestion, drew national and international attention and condemnation. UN experts including Leilani Farah, the Special Rapporteur on the Right to Adequate Housing, called on Kenyan authorities to halt all ongoing demolitions in Kibera and guarantee the rights to adequate housing and education.

The scale and brutality of this forced eviction drew national and international attention and condemnation.
Malavika Vartak, Amnesty International's Researcher/Adviser on Economic, Social and Cultural Rights

Undeterred by this criticism, Kenyan authorities carried out another equally brutal and large-scale forced eviction 10 days later. On 3 August, Kenya Railways Corporation and Kenya Power demolished the homes of another 10,000 people living along the railway line in Kaloleni and Makongeni in Nairobi. Amnesty International witnessed the desperate frenzy as people scrambled to save their belongings even while bulldozers tore through their homes. Once again, the eviction was carried out without adequate notice, consultation or compensation, and in the presence of heavily armed security personnel. 

Affordable housing is one of Kenya’s “Big Four” development priorities for the next four years. One cannot but help wonder how the government aims to achieve this when it continues to render thousands of families homeless. Last week, the Government of Kenya signed a deal with the United Nations Office for Project Services (UNOPS) to jointly finance the delivery of 100,000 affordable housing units. However, amid a housing deficit of approximately two million units and forced evictions, the recent deal is a case of the government taking one step forward and two steps back.

Forced evictions drive people deeper into poverty. Once forcibly evicted, many people have no choice but to live in even more precarious housing than they did previously.

Forced evictions drive people deeper into poverty. Once forcibly evicted, many people have no choice but to live in even more precarious housing than they did previously. What chance will people, who have been left in a far worse situation by the government’s illegal actions, have at accessing adequate and affordable housing?

In Nigeria, Amnesty International found that many of the thousands of people who were forcibly evicted in 2017 from Otodo-Gbame, an informal settlement in Lagos, are still homeless and living in desperate poverty. Families have been broken up and are sheltering in nearby informal settlements where many are sharing one room with 20 other people. One woman told Amnesty International that having lost her home and source of income, she now sleeps on cardboard boxes and her five children no longer go to school. Prioritization of the megacity project by Lagos state authorities negates the idea of inclusiveness and puts lives, livelihoods and access to education at great risk.

They don’t see us as people. They left us out in the open like we were animals or something to be thrown away.
Woman forcefully evicted from her home in ESwatini

Forced evictions are not solely an urban phenomenon. Rural areas across the world also witness this human rights violation. In ESwatini (formally Swaziland), hundreds of subsistence farmers have been rendered homeless and deprived of their means of livelihood as they have been pushed off the land to make way for development. Amnesty International documented the experiences of families forcibly evicted in 2014 and 2018 and their ongoing struggle to rebuild their lives. “They don’t see us as people. They left us out in the open like we were animals or something to be thrown away”, a woman whose home had been demolished said.   

Unfortunately, many - including governments officials around the world - believe that people without legal title to the land or house they occupy need not be consulted, compensated or protected from homelessness. International human rights law, on the other hand, is unequivocal: forced evictions are illegal; they are never justified, even where people do not have a legally recognized right to the land or house that they occupy. Forced evictions constitute a grave violation of the right to housing and they often lead to violations of several other human rights such as the rights to life, food, water, health, education and work.  

International human rights law, on the other hand, is unequivocal: forced evictions are illegal; they are never justified, even where people do not have a legally recognized right to the land or house that they occupy.

No doubt, as another World Habitat Day dawns on us, leaders and policy makers will once again pay lip service to achieving adequate housing for all. It is time that we take this injustice personally and call them out, raise questions and demand answers. Residents of informal settlements in many parts of the world are already doing so through peaceful protest and other activism. We must join them and remind our governments that housing is an inalienable human right. If world leaders are serious about achieving adequate and affordable housing for all, ending forced evictions is a crucial first step.  

This article was first published in the Daily Nation newspaper of Kenya.