11 January 2012 – It is a lesser known reality of the earthquake that devastated Haiti on 12 January 2010 and left more than 200,000 dead. The merciless disintegration of the Haitian State created a situation of utter chaos for the country’s most vulnerable.
In less than 55 seconds of tremors, 1.5 million people were suddenly stranded on rubble-strewn streets filled with the detritus of 80,000 collapsed buildings. Almost two years after the disaster, more than 650,000 people still live in makeshift camps, often in terrible conditions.
Even if the election of a new President, Michel Martelly, in May last year gave Haitians hope for the future, the new Government faces a highly unstable situation. Many non-governmental organizations (NGOs) and UN agencies are preparing to shutter the emergency operations they set up in the immediate aftermath of the quake. The transition from emergency assistance to long-term development projects poses a growing challenge as hundreds of thousands of internally displaced persons (IDPs) still rely on aid to survive.
Among the displaced, women are particularly vulnerable as they face a surge in sexual assaults and domestic violence. In addition, precarious living conditions in the IDP camps as well as the overall weakening of local authorities provide criminals with opportunities to offend with impunity.
Despite the difficulties, women are slowly beginning to talk, says Celia Romulus, a project manager for UN Women, the agency fighting violence against women.
“We are confronted with dramatic situations in which young women are raped in broad daylight in their tents or even young children are being raped,” Ms. Romulus says.
Sexual assaults are particularly difficult to identify, prevent and punish. As a result, the UN has strengthened its patrols in the camps, fielding more than 8,800 blue helmets, 1,244 members of the UN police force (UNPOL) and 2,337 police officers from formed police units (FPUs).
Strengthening security in the camps
With more than 50,000 inhabitants, Jean Marie Vincent is the biggest IDP camp in the Haitian capital of Port-au-Prince, occupying several hectares of property near the city centre and close to Cité Soleil, one of the poorest and less secure areas of the city.
Raymond Lamarre, the UNPOL police spokesperson in Haiti, bluntly describes the difficulties faced by law enforcement: “The gangsters of Cité Soleil commit crimes and then hide in the IDP camp where it is more difficult for us and for the Haitian National Police (HNP) Force to track them down.”
To dissuade these criminals, UN police concentrate their efforts along the camp’s perimeter and at its entrances.
“Intensifying patrols along the perimeter helps to reduce opportunities for committing crimes and it strengthens security for the IDPs,” says Mr. Lamarre, noting that the new measures have led to a significant reduction in reports of sexual assaults.
“We have found out that the latrines are particularly dangerous for women at night. That’s why we have decided to install lighting near these places where sexual predators happened to be lurking.”
Despite the precautions along the camp’s perimeter, violence inside the camp is still widespread, with UN officers coming under threat as well.
“For the first time, UN police have been targeted,” notes Claude Mercier, the police officer in charge of an investigation into the recent shooting of UN personnel.
“Yesterday, shots were fired in the camp and we immediately dispatched a UNPOL team towards the location. One of the police officers was severely wounded and the culprit managed to escape. The body of a civilian was found not far from that place,” he says.
With two police stations overseeing a population of 50,000 people, UNPOL officers admit it will take time to completely secure the camp. The upcoming departure of a large number of humanitarian organizations and the lack of resources available to the national police make the situation ever more fragile. For Mr. Lamarre, one of the solutions would be to forge relations of trust with camp residents.