As the intensity of the COVID-19 pandemic ebbs and flows, this year’s theme for World Habitat Day – “Housing For All – A Better Urban Future” couldn’t have been more befitting. With almost 90% of all reported cases of COVID-19 in urban areas and the close link between deprivation and infection rates, there is an urgent need to critically look at the fault lines in our cities and communities.
As noted by the former UN Special Rapporteur on Adequate Housing, access to adequate housing is now, more than even, a matter of life and death. Housing is one of the key factors that influences health outcomes which determine the level of a person’s vulnerability to being impacted severely by COVID-19. It is also almost impossible to protect oneself and others from the virus in the absence of a stable and secure place to live. Around 1.8 billion people across the world live in situations of homelessness or in housing that is “grossly inadequate”. For those living in inadequate housing, the risk of being infected is not significantly reduced as many have no choice but to live or work in close proximity to others, share already crowded spaces, including water and sanitation facilities.
People living and working in such situations already belong to some of the most marginalised groups in our societies, often facing discrimination on one or multiple grounds and include LGBTI people, children in street situations, older people, Indigenous people, refugees and migrants, those discriminated against based on their gender, descent and work, people with disabilities, and women and girls within these groups.
From the very early days of the pandemic, activists and experts have highlighted the importance of human rights compliant COVID-19 response and recovery measures. As early as March 2020, the then UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing urged states to take extraordinary steps to secure the right to housing for all in order to protect against the pandemic. And yet, actions of governments across the world on the right to adequate housing can, at best, be described as uneven and short term and, in many cases, simply cruel and reckless.
In June 2020, Amnesty International, in a submission to the UN Special Rapporteur on adequate housing highlighted actions by some states on housing and homelessness in the context of the pandemic. These ranged from short-term measures to provide shelter to people experiencing homelessness, a moratorium on evictions, penalties imposed on people experiencing homelessness for non-compliance with lockdown measures as well as forced evictions.
Almost seven months into the pandemic, very little has changed. Forced evictions continue while some of the most marginalised amongst us continue to live in increasingly precarious situations and are pushed towards homelessness.
On 11 May, five days after the Kariobangi North forced evictions, the President of Kenya, through the Cabinet Secretary for Interior and Co-ordination of National Government, announced that “until the country is done with the COVID-19 pandemic challenges, no evictions should take place”.
He also announced that the police had been instructed to cease all evictions and that police officers were required to confirm court orders on evictions through the Office of the Attorney General. However, this moratorium on evictions has been flouted time and again with little regard for human rights for those affected or their exposure to the pandemic.
Most recently, on 1 October residents of Dagoretti Corner settlement were subjected to ruthless forced evictions that rendered around 3,000 people homeless. The demolitions of homes and structures that included around 200 small businesses were carried out at the behest of Kenya Power and Lighting Company and Kenya Railways Corporation, both state agencies, in a bid to claim the land occupied by the settlement. Those who lost their homes and sources of livelihood told Amnesty International that they had not been provided with notice of eviction nor any alternative housing or compensation.
“I have lived here for close to 20 years and had my home and business brought down in minutes. I didn’t even have time to salvage my belongings as I didn’t hear of any notice” – Joyce Wangari, resident and business owner at Dagoretti Corner.
Similarly, on 23 and 24 September close to a thousand residents of Kaloleni informal settlement in Nairobi were subjected to forced evictions by Kenya Railways Corporation. Community members in this area had faced brutal home demolitions in August 2018 by Kenya Railways Corporation. With no alternative housing provided, many of them had little choice but to return to the area where they lived and rebuild from scratch. Speaking to Amnesty International, Magdaline Njeri, a resident of Kaloleni said:
"Since the 2018 demolitions in Kaloleni, we have not lived in peace. We had no option but to rebuild our homes in the same area. We simply have nowhere else to go! We did not even get time to salvage our belongings. The demolitions on 23 and 24 September 2020 took us by surprise at 9:30am, there was no notice issued. I am a casual worker and with COVID-19 affecting most places I would earn my keep; homelessness has become a hard reality for me. I also have a child with special needs and find it very difficult to cope. I have no parents and nowhere to go".
Mass evictions during the pandemic, however, are not restricted to a particular country or region. Amnesty International along with several other organisations have been documenting and raising our voice against these, in different parts of the world.
In Italy, despite some legal and policy changes that instructed the suspension of evictions through the pandemic and most recently until 31 December 2020, forced evictions of Roma were carried out by local authorities. On 11 August, residents were forcibly evicted from the Roma informal settlement of via del Foro Italiaco 531 in Rome. In Turin, Roma families were forcibly evicted from their homes in segregated camps on three instances between August and September 2020. These latest forced evictions add to a long-standing pattern of housing rights violations Roma have suffered at the hands of Italian authorities. According to media reports, several other evictions of camps or informal settlements have been announced by local authorities in recent weeks, raising concerns about the future housing situation of Roma hundreds of children and adults.
It is also significant that while Surabaya in Indonesia has been selected as this year’s host for World Habitat Day, mass evictions have taken place elsewhere in Indonesia including in Ancol village in North Jakarta and in Tangerang.
Refugees in Moria
Although not faced with mass forced evictions, for refugees and asylum-seekers in Greece, COVID-19 has brought with it a new set of housing related challenges. As a result of a March 2020 law, refugees and subsidiary protection beneficiaries in Greece are granted only 30 days from their legal recognition, to leave the accommodation that has been provided and seek housing on the private rental market. Prior to March 2020, they had a six-month window period to secure alternative housing. The government began implementing this plan from the beginning of June 2020 and thousands of refugees were required to leave their accommodation including in camps, even though movement restrictions were still in place in many of these facilities due to Covid-19. UNHCR noted that it "continuously expressed concerns that assistance for many recognized refugees is ending prematurely, before they have an effective access to employment and social welfare schemes, foreseen by Greek law".
The agency has also flagged how refugees faced “barriers in accessing support”. The agency has further noted the barriers that many refugees face in finding work and housing in the context of COVID-19 restrictions. According to NGOs working in Greece, the government’s operation created risks of homelessness or destitution for many. As articulated by MSF, “We have patients with cancer, survivors of torture, single mothers with chronic diseases and heavily pregnant women who are essentially being told to sleep rough, without any support.”
To make matters worse, on 8 and 9 September, devastating fires broke out in the overcrowded Moria refugee camp on the island of Lesvos in Greece, burning it to the ground. While no casualties were recorded, overnight almost 13,000 people lost the scant shelter and sanitation they had, as well as documents, personal items and medicines.
“We managed to save our lives and took few blankets from the tent... I lost my asylum card and cash card, (I only have) the police paper”. M, an Afghan asylum-seeker who was living in Moria with his family before its destruction.
“At the moment we are stuck in the middle of two police groups, and they tried to push us back from both groups; since two days we do not have access to proper food or washing”, said P*, a male asylum-seeker, in the aftermath of the fires.
Although from mid-September onwards, Moria residents affected by the fire were gradually moved to a new temporary camp in Lesvos, for several days after the tragedy thousands were forced to sleep rough on a stretch of road cordoned by police forces, with no proper shelter or sanitation and limited food-distribution. At the time of the fire, at least 35 asylum seekers had tested positive for COVID-19. As people were moved to the new camp and tested for COVID-19 at the point of entry, around 240 people tested positive.
There is no dispute that without an adequate place to live, it is almost impossible to practice any of the protective measures against COVID-19 called for by governments and public health experts. For people experiencing homelessness, COVID-19 present a grave and immediate threat to their health and lives, and despite some temporary measures by certain governments to protect those facing extreme forms of homelessness like rough sleeping, their present and future remains precarious.
For example, in March the UK government, responsible for housing in England and Wales, announced funding to enable local authorities to offer emergency accommodation and other support to rough sleepers. According to government figures, by mid-April over 90% of rough sleepers in England had been offered emergency accommodation and by May nearly 15,000 people had been provided emergency accommodation by local authorities. Most of those experiencing rough sleeping in Scotland and Northern Ireland too were provided emergency accommodation. However, by August, charities and media were reporting a significant increase in the number of people sleeping rough due to a number of factors, including the return of some of those asked to leave emergency accommodation for antisocial behavior, and the creation of a new group of homeless people due to the closure of support services that they normally depended on. Experts were also of the opinion that the rise in numbers could be attributable to increasing unemployment and the inability of those in precarious work to keep up with rents.
Groundswell, an organization that works with people experiencing homelessness reported that the pandemic led to significant changes to the operations of support services including the closure of night shelters, halting of key services such as face-to-face assessments for health and disability-related benefits, and appointments at Jobcentres for those seeking work. Some of the major challenges faced by those who were put in hotels and other emergency accommodation was access to sufficient food, often because they had no income as their benefit payments had been halted due to their inability to meet certain conditions, or because they received food that required to be cooked and they did not have the necessary appliances to do so in their accommodation. The organization also reported that many people experiencing homelessness felt that their mental and physical health had worsened during the lockdown.
While legal changes in Scotland and Northern Ireland mean that notice periods for evictions from rental housing have been extended till March 2021, the lifting of the eviction ban in England and Wales in September has raised concern that there will be another wave of evictions of those who fell into rental arrears over the past few months. In the absence of sufficient affordable housing units, it is likely that thousands of families will be faced with homelessness.
As noted by Dr Steven Platts, Chief Executive of Groundswell, "Everyone has the right to a safe home. Across the UK barriers in the system mean for thousands of people homelessness is a reality. As we head towards winter with the added challenge of COVID-19 spreading across the country, we need to use the insight and lessons of the past six months to design an effective response that protects people's right to a home, adequate health and wellbeing and access to food”.
Building Back Better
There is no doubt that sustainable and long-term housing solutions are one of the key building blocks to achieving a “A Better Urban Future”. The failure by states to adequately plan for and provide affordable housing has contributed to the proliferation of grossly inadequate housing, informal settlements and homelessness which have contributed to a highly unequal and fractured society.
What is needed goes much beyond ending forced evictions and rough sleeping, although tackling such extreme violations of the right to housing would be a welcome first step.
Over the longer term, governments need to commit the necessary resources to increase social housing stock and make housing affordable and accessible to all without discrimination. COVID-19 recovery plans must include nation-wide housing strategies created with the meaningful engagement of all including the most marginalised sections such as residents of informal settlements, refugees and asylum seekers and people experiencing homelessness.
If we are to emerge from this pandemic as stronger and fairer communities, more resilient to future crises, then governments at all levels must evaluate their COVID-19 response measures through a human rights lens and take steps to ensure that recovery measures do not end up further entrenching patterns of poverty and discrimination.