Zimbabwe: Concern that transit camps will become permanent

[This report does not necessarily reflect the views of the United Nations]
JOHANNESBURG, 7 Jul 2005 (IRIN) - The creation of transit camps as a result of the Zimbabwean government's forced eviction campaign has a familiar ring - a homeless people's rights NGO says many of the suburbs in the recent eviction drive arose as transit camps after demolitions in previous years.

In the cleanup campaign, launched in May, thousands of informal settlements have been demolished and at least 375,000 people left homeless; the authorities have claimed it was part of an urban renewal strategy that will eventually build 10,000 homes at a cost of US $300 million.

The government wants people cleared from illegal settlements to either move directly to their place of birth in the rural areas, or to one of two temporary transit centres outside the capital, Harare, and the eastern city of Mutare. A third facility is yet to be completed in Bulawayo in the south of the country.

Ironically, Porta Farm, one of the suburbs targeted by the authorities, had come into existence as a transit camp in 1992 after one of the first eviction campaigns in Harare, just before the Commonwealth Heads of State meeting, said Beth Chitekwe-Biti, director of Dialogue on Shelter, an NGO affiliated to Shack/Slum Dwellers International.

"Evicted families were relocated to a holding camp in Dzivarasekwa, some 10 km south of Harare; the rest were to be repatriated back to their rural homes. The logic then was: if you could not prove you were gainfully employed you had no business being in Harare. This relocation was always meant as a temporary solution - most of the families who had been ferried to their rural homes came back after a few months and re-established themselves in Porta Farm," she explained.

Dzivarasekwa was affected by the recent eviction campaign, as was Hatcliffe Extension, another suburb in Harare created for previously evicted communities.

According to Chitekwe-Biti, Hatcliffe Extension residents were actually granted leases last year, but because "they were unable to afford services and permanent structures, they were deemed illegal by the authorities, as our housing law states that no land can be allocated to anyone if it has not been connected to services".

She estimated that at least 50 percent of all urban residents lived in informal dwellings, and commented, "Squatting is illegal in Zimbabwe. The only form of housing the poor can get without risking eviction and prosecution is to squat in the backyard [extensions] of formal settlements, where one has access to basic services."

In the early 1980s the government initiated housing projects with the assistance of international humanitarian agencies, in which land was made available to the poor at a nominal cost. "The families had to pay for services and rates ... and in some instances finance was also arranged to help people build permanent houses," said Chitekwe-Biti.

However, the projects slowed down as funds from donors dried up. According to the NGO, there were at least 250,000 people on the waiting list for houses in Harare alone.

"I did a survey two years ago and found that the government had been allocating only 1,000 plots a year. As far as I know, no land has been allocated in the past two years in Harare," she noted.

Dialogue on Shelter, which works with the Zimbabwe Homeless People's Federation, a network of communities, launched its own housing projects in the late 1990s. "We successfully negotiated with the local authorities in the towns of Mutare [on the Mozambican border] and Victoria Falls [on the Zambian border] to make land available for the poor communities," said Chitekwe-Biti.

Funds were also raised to provide services to the plots. However, some of the dwellings in Victoria Falls have also been affected by the recent eviction campaign.

The NGO is critical of the government's plans to build new homes in Harare. "We have seen the models - no poor family will be able to afford the finishes in these homes. It costs at least US $690 to install plumbing as per the city council's requirements," she pointed out.

Independent estimates show that the majority of poor Zimbabweans earn less than $200 a month.

Meanwhile, Anna Tibaijuka, the UN Secretary-General's Special Envoy, who is evaluating the impact of the controversial demolition of informal settlements and markets in Zimbabwe, told Zimbabwean officials on Wednesday that rural repatriation did not work. Tibaijuka also heads UN-HABITAT, which promotes every citizen's right to the city.

Sharad Shankardass, spokesman for the special envoy, pointed out that the slum rate in Zimbabwe was much lower than most other African countries.

After her visit to Bulawayo, the envoy also expressed concern that local churches were being overwhelmed by the demand for shelter by displaced Zimbabweans.


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