Haiti in the face of forced evictions

Amélie Gauthier

The eviction of displaced people from camps is now a pressing issue.

The number of displaced people in camps created in the aftermath of the earthquake that struck Haiti in January 2010 continues to decline according to figures presented last March by the International Organization for Migration (IOM). These numbers indi­cate that these camps would currently have 680,000 people instead of the 1.5 million that were crammed there at the height of the crisis. However, these fig­ures mask a significant challenge: more than 233,000 people in 247 camps face the threat of forced eviction or have al­ready been evicted by landowners.

As early as June 2010, the first cases of evictions occurred, taking the hu­manitarian community by surprise. It handled the situation as best as it could on a case-by-case basis, by re­questing a moratorium on evictions from the Haitian government. Under Haitian law and international humani­tarian law, landowners do not have the right to evict the displaced and victims of the earthquake. However, some landowners have taken steps to­ward doing so, some acting at night, and even going as far as using force to evict the occupants. The humanitarian community has been slow to react to the evictions and, until recently, the re­sponse has lacked both coherence and clear leadership. Many Haitians have nowhere to go, moving either to other camps or to new sites, or joining fam­ilies evicted from locations where they camped illegally. Further, according to the IOM, other families are returning to their houses, now inadequate and un­safe.

An Oxfam survey on families evicted from Port-au-Prince revealed that their situation has worsened since their ex­pulsion. They have lost access to basic services, including treated water and sanitation, and are generally neither able to pay rent nor capable of sup­porting themselves. Although they re­ceived financial compensation from the landowner in order to leave the camp, the money is quickly spent on food for the family, on caring for the sick or on petty trading. Many of them find them­selves in very precarious situations. In addition, the United Nations’ Office for the Co-ordination of Humanitarian Affairs (OCHA) says that several evicted people settled in Canaan, an illegal re­location site outside Port-au-Prince, with no access to services and vulner­able to flooding, where NGOs, on or­ders of the government, are kept from providing any assistance.

Although the responsibility lies with the government to guarantee the rights of displaced people and provide viable solutions, it has yet to focus on the pressing issue of the camps and those related to the return or relocation of displaced persons and the delicate problem of evictions. Several strategic documents, such as the Neighbourhood Return and Housing Reconstruction Framework of the Interim Commission for the Reconstruction of Haiti, the Safe Shelter Strategy, and the January 2011 Return and Relocation Strategy of the United Nations, have been developed to address the problem. However, the government has yet to submit or ap­prove a return and relocation strategy. The lack of political will and space to re­locate the displaced are two major ob­stacles to return, and little progress has been made to find sustainable solu­tions for the majority of these people.

Even before the earthquake, the number of dwellings in Port-au-Prince was insufficient to meet the needs of the population and, since then, the problem was exacerbated with the de­struction of 250,000 homes. According to a study by the Ministry of Public Works, Transport and Communications assessing the damage on 379,170 buildings that are still standing in the capital, 26 per cent are hazardous and 20 per cent are severely damaged and must be demolished. Many property owners do not know what state their home is in and it is difficult to find tradesmen who can perform repairs, demolish buildings and remove the debris from properties.

Threats and evictions are likely to in­tensify in the coming months, as the humanitarian community withdraws, marking the end of emergency as­sistance and the transition to recon­struction and development. After 14 months of crisis management mainly by NGOs in the camps, for many dis­placed people access to basic services, such as water and sanitation as well as money saved on rent, remains an incentive to stay in the camps. The de­parture of NGOs will be reason enough for owners to reclaim their lands and free themselves from any responsibility toward the displaced.

Several humanitarian agencies, in­cluding Oxfam, are against forced evic­tions. In recent months, Oxfam has par­ticipated in more than 15 negotiations between landowners and displaced persons. In the best cases, these efforts have only delayed evictions. An Oxfam negotiator explains: “It’s very frustrat­ing because even if you successfully negotiate an extension, in a few weeks or months, there will still be no places or lasting solutions for them.” The NGO approach —based on respect for the rights of the displaced to not be evict­ed— has created tensions with the landowners who have received very little recognition for their generosity and have yet to enjoy their right to pri­vate property. The next government, which will be formed following the an­nouncement of the official results of the second round of the presidential elections held on March 20, 2011, will have to launch a return and resettle­ment strategy, one that will take into account the issue of forced evictions and the rights of both the displaced and landowners.

The situation remains very difficult for victims of the earthquake in the camps, as few viable solutions have been of­fered in terms of services and means of support, while property owners are claiming their lands and NGOs are leav­ing in large numbers.

Amélie Gauthier is Co-ordinator of Advocacy, Protection and Communication for Intermón Oxfam Haiti.