More than 15 months after Haiti’s earthquake, nearly 700,000 people are still displaced, living in makeshift settlements throughout the capital Port-au-Prince and beyond, mostly on private property. Many property owners are saying they want their land back, putting families who lost their own homes to the quake under threat of eviction. The International Rescue Committee (IRC) has come across this problem in more and more of the settlements where we work. Public land is scarce in Haiti, so most of the displaced people I assist in my role as the IRC’s protection coordinator have nowhere else to go.
As an international non-governmental organization, the IRC is here to assist people who were displaced by the quake and to advocate on their behalf with local authorities — but ultimately the best solutions will come from ordinary Haitians themselves as they rebuild their country.
I have been fortunate to witness the generosity of Haitians who are helping their brothers and sisters who lost everything. For example, the first landowner I came into contact with in December — I’ll call him Jean Pierre — had a plot of land where about 150 families rigged up tent shelters immediately after the quake. He allowed them to stay, and the IRC supplied their settlement with clean water and sanitation services. But one day, according to members of the community, Jean Pierre told them they needed to leave within a month. I met with Jean Pierre, thanked him for the time he had allowed these families to live on his land and explained that we’d like to ask for a bit more time. Happily, he was willing to work with us.
We scheduled a meeting with Jean Pierre, the district mayor (who ultimately must negotiate these types of issues), and the International Organization for Migration (the agency tasked with coordinating programs for displaced people in Port-au-Prince). We discussed the challenges people living on Jean Pierre’s land continued to face and talked about a decree from the President of Haiti that extended the country’s state of emergency to 18 months after the quake. That decree specifically requested that landowners allow displaced people to stay on their land for the duration of the emergency. Before the conversation came to a close, Jean Pierre graciously agreed to allow the 150 families to remain until the end of the period decreed.
In the discussion on forced evictions, the positive contributions of landowners like Jean Pierre have often been overlooked. They have greatly contributed to the humanitarian response in Haiti by allowing displaced people to live on their land until another housing solution is found — this has been especially critical given the lack of public land. While displaced people have the right to a place to live, landowners also have a right to use their property for personal or economic purposes. These competing rights must be delicately negotiated.
Another vivid example of Haitians helping Haitians that comes to my mind is Rosette (not her real name). Rosette is a community leader who works on behalf of residents in a displacement camp in her neighborhood. One of the landowners of the site began building a wall around his portion of the property in December, effectively cutting the camp in two. The IRC contacted the landowner on numerous occasions, asking him to meet with the mayor and to respect the presidential decree. Unfortunately, the landowner refused and announced that by the end of February the gates of his enclosure would be locked, cutting off access to the site.
Rosette worried about what would happen to the families who were to lose their homes a second time. She scrambled to find other places for them to stay, working in collaboration with the IRC and her fellow community leaders. Finally it was decided that the best option would be for most of the families to move to an adjacent field with space that was still free.
Since there would not be enough room for everyone, some of the community leaders who had space available offered to allow the remaining families to stay on their own property. Rosette was one of them; she graciously invited two families to set up tents beside her modest house. Hers is one of the numerous “host families” who provide a place to live for those displaced by the earthquake.
As Haiti continues its slow recovery, forced evictions will remain a daunting challenge. The reality is the majority of the nearly 700,000 displaced people are living on private land, not public land — and they can’t stay there forever. While the international community plays an important role in advocating for their needs with Haiti’s government as the country rebuilds, it is the Rosettes and Jean Pierres of Haiti who are already finding solutions through helping their fellow citizens.
Robyn Kerr is the IRC’s protection coordinator, based in Port-au-Prince, Haiti.