Institutionalizing Protection in Disaster Risk Reduction: A case study from the Dominican Republic
Due to its geographical location, the Dominican Republic is highly prone to the impacts of natural hazards, which, in combination with the existing underlying factors of widespread inequality and impoverishment, result all too often in disaster. As a consequence, the country is faced with large scale disaster-induced displacements on a recurrent basis. Addressing protection as a key element of disaster risk management – at national, provincial, municipal and community level – is imperative in the quest to safeguard human rights during these emergency situations.
According to the latest estimates of the Internal Displacement Monitoring Center, an average of 26.4 million people in over 100 countries were displaced by disasters each year during the period 2008–2015. Among these countries, small island developing states (SIDS) have been disproportionately affected by disaster-induced displacement, having experienced, relative to their population size, displacement levels three times higher than the global average during this period.
One such country is the Dominican Republic, which, due to its geographical location, is extremely prone not only to hurricanes, tropical storms, as well as significant floods and droughts, but is also exposed to high levels of seismic risk. On a periodic basis, the country is impacted by major hydrometeorological events, which in combination with underlying conditions of extreme inequality, widespread impoverishment and poor land-use regulation, result all too often in disasters and large-scale population displacements.
THE IMPACT OF DISASTERS
With an average estimate of 24,543 people displaced by disaster each year, the Dominican Republic has the fourth highest rate of disaster-induced displacement within the region. Among the most significant recent examples is category three Hurricane George in 1998, which left over 85,000 internally displaced and 350 dead. In 2004, the flash flood tragedy of Jimaní left 688 dead, fully erasing several communities from the map and leaving around 1000 families displaced.4 In 2007, tropical storms Noel and Olga left over 140,000 internally displaced and caused between 120–300 million dollars in damages. In 2016, category four Hurricane Matthew left 37,809 people displaced and severe material damage across 16 provinces. In 2017, hurricanes Irma and María left a total of 50,000 people internally displaced and affected over 10,000 homes.
Protracted internal displacement
Though the impact of these meteorological events and the emergencies themselves normally receive attention from state response actors, interest usually drops dramatically after the immediate response and early recovery stages. As a result, there is often little or a complete lack of government follow-up and media monitoring regarding the situation of internally displaced populations, leading to the alarming – yet barely identified and rarely recognized – issue of protracted displacement across the country.
Rendered almost completely invisible without any existing registry or census, thousands of families displaced by these events continue to live in the ‘temporary refuges’ they were originally relocated to by the government, waiting for years, if not decades, to be resettled or sent back to their places of origin. In reality, these ‘refuges’ are no more than barracones – improvised shacks made from tin, carton, mud or canvas – often located in high risk zones with no access to any basic services and in generally crowded and poor conditions.
In these recurring and often fragile emergency situations, underlying and pre-existing social issues are almost always exacerbated. As a result, even before affected communities are confronted with the issue of protracted displacement or a failure by the authorities to respect their housing rights, they are also often exposed to a wide range of human rights violations and protection risks both during and after emergencies.
For example, many Dominicans living in high-risk zones refuse to be evacuated and sent to staterun shelters, as these are considered highly unsafe due to the prevalence of sexual abuse and exploitation committed by some state response actors (particularly the military) and shelter staff who take advantage of the vulnerability of the population under their care. Specifically, access to food and medical attention is at times deliberately withheld by some response actors, who demand transactional sex or sexual ‘favours’ in exchange for humanitarian aid.
This abuse of power is further manifested in cases of corruption, coercion, and intentional deprivation of services based on political affiliation, socioeconomic status or ethnicity, the latter predominantly targeting Haitian migrants and Dominicans of Haitian descent who are systematically denied access to basic aid or services, and in some cases are even banned from utilizing the shelters.9 Cases of sex trafficking and forced prostitution rings, as well as child labour and abuse have also been reported in these settings, particularly in urban and/or border areas.