Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

“Haitians in IDP Camps are living better now than before the earthquake? Are you kidding me?”

Update from Nicole Phillips, IJDH Staff Attorney currently working in Haiti

National Palace and IDP Camp Champs Mars

I find it difficult to write about Haiti when in Haiti because the experience is overwhelming.  I spend my days there trying to make something happen for people struggling to survive day after day.  People all around me are losing hope that their country and their lives will ever get better – from our staff at BAI who lost family members, to victims of rape who remain in the same camp as their rapists, to families without any income struggling to feed their children.

Walking or driving around Port au Prince you see families living in homeless encampments everywhere you go.  (1,342 internal displacement (IDP) camps in the Port au Prince area was the official count in June)  It’s what I imagine refugee camps to be like in armed conflict zones like Sudan or Rwanda.  I’m told that those camps had refugee organizations living with the survivors.  In Haiti, most camp communities are on their own to scrounge for food, shelter and other basic services.

Children at Camp Palais de L’Art

Every poor Haitian has had their life torn upside down by the earthquake.   Every story of desperation I hear crushes me.  One young man waited all day at our office to speak with me.  I had never met him before, but someone told him that I was there and may be able to help.  He wanted me to help his community in Grand Ravine who had lost everything and asked for building materials, food, clothes, anything?  We spoke for about 45 minutes as he told me how hard it is to grow up in Haiti right now.  He graduated from college at 20 years old with excellent grades and wants to be a doctor.  He wondered if I could sponsor his visa to study in the U.S., or pay for his school in Haiti, or just find him work, any work.  I hated saying no to him.  I spoke with dozens of young, educated women and men who may never have the opportunity to realize their potential.

Families are suffering in the IDP camps we visited.

There is a myth out there, propagated by American politicians and relief workers in Haiti, that Haitians are living better in IDP camps now than they were living before the earthquake.  These same people clarify that the role of disaster relief is not to raise the standard of living of poor people.

Camp Acra Sud

I mentioned this myth to a group of law students from the University of San Francisco, School of Law who came with me to Haiti to do a survey on conditions in IDP camps.  We were debriefing last night from our trip and strategizing on how to expose the human rights violations we witnessed.  The students all laughed as if it were a joke.  People we interviewed in the survey were employed before the earthquake and provided for their families.  Now their children are sleeping on mud soaked with raw sewage from the last rain storm.   Conditions are not better than before the earthquake, in fact, they couldn’t get any worse.

We visited 6 IDP camps around Port au Prince (I visited about a dozen camps total).  The conditions in all of them were unbearable by any human being’s standard.  Tents and tarps that finally reached Haiti in February and March are now falling apart from continuous use.  Families are living and sleeping exposed to the elements, without protection from rain, wind, malnutrition, or disease.  One young man living in Camp Acra Sud invited us into his tent to meet his mother.   He told me that he lost his job and his home after the earthquake.  He said that his family could not afford to eat and were desperate.

Mother and Son at Acra Sud

Most camps we saw did have access to non-potable water, mostly supplied by the Red Cross or Doctors without Borders.  Most also had a few portable toilets and showers (about 1 toilet for every 50-100 people).  The toilets were changed 1-2 times a month and smelled so pungent that it is hard to be within 100 feet of them.  People eat and sleep around them.  There is also little to no security or lighting in the camps we saw, making people vulnerable to theft and rape.

One camp I visited, Barbancourt II, had a cesspool the diameter of a large swimming pool.  The water is normally a foot high but when it rains the water rises to 3 feet and creeps into people’s tents.  The smelly, stagnant water was bubbling before us.  (Is that mosquito larva? I asked myself)  Space is so limited in the camp that tents are pitched right next to the cesspool.  It’s a health disaster waiting to happen.

Cesspool at Camp Barbancourt II

I worry that Americans and the rest of the international community think that Haitians in IDP camps are living better now than before the earthquake.  I worry about how this myth may affect aid efforts.   But I also feel that the myth fails to appreciate Haitians’ amazing day-to-day survival in uninhabitable conditions.

For more information on camp conditions, see Neglect in the Encampments: Haiti’s Second-Wave Humanitarian Disaster (, a report released in March.  We will be releasing a follow-up report next month based on our surveys in 6 IDP camps.

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