Institute for Justice and Democracy in Haiti

Facing man-made disaster in Haiti: Failed policies leave people with few options

By Kathleen Bergin and Nicole Phillips, Houston Chronicle
November 9, 2010

Amid reports that Haiti was spared a dead-on hit by Hurricane Tomas, it came to light that thousands of people still stranded in displacement camps after the Jan. 12 earthquake refused calls from Haitian President Renée Préval to evacuate. At Camp Corail-Cesselesse, where thousands of Haiti’s homeless were transported months ago, aid workers arrived with instructions for residents to pack up, board a truck and make their way out. Almost 8,000 residents live in the camp, but only a few hundred agreed to evacuate. The others refused, and with hostility mounting, the aid workers turned and left.

By a stroke of luck the hurricane tipped west, sparing millions of people who live in Port au Prince’s camps. But those camps are still flooded, they will get more rain, and now they’re in the path of a mudslide. And the only thing protecting the 1.3 million people who live in the camps are weathered tarps and bedsheets. So why would anyone refuse the first chance they had to leave?

People living in the camps had good reason to fear Tomas, but some were even more afraid that their government was using the threat of the hurricane to move them out of the camps and that they would not be allowed to return.

Over the past 10 months, government agents have been evicting people from the camps without giving them anywhere else to go. Armed police and state-run bulldozers have invaded camps and demolished hundreds of shelters, often at night, with barely a moment’s notice to the families inside. The police have beaten and terrorized displaced residents until they agree to leave the camps and have arrested those who refuse.

Unlawful evictions are also being carried out by private individuals who purport to own the land but whose legal claim is no stronger than that of camp residents. Only 5 percent of land titles were recorded in Haiti before the earthquake, but the government is supporting private evictions without verifying who owns the land. Instead, they are summarily evacuating settlements in violation of residents’ due process rights.

We documented reports like this in dozens of camps that we investigated on fact finding missions to Haiti. In October, the New York Times reported that almost 40,000 people had been evicted, and another 144,000 face an ongoing threat of eviction. In some cases, the government has destroyed entire settlements. A September report from U.N. Secretary-General Ban Ki-moon said 29 percent of 1,268 camps studied had been closed forcibly. And just this past Friday, as Hurricane Tomas edged toward Haiti, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights expressed “deep concern” over the practice of “illegal forced evictions” in the country’s displacement camps.

Another reason that hundreds of thousands of Haitians refused to evacuate for Tomas is because they have no place else to go on account of decisions made by the government of Haiti and the international community. While corporations and nonprofit organizations stand ready to build transitional and permanent housing, the government of Haiti has yet to designate available public or private land for resettlement. A transparent and comprehensive resettlement policy is vital. Meanwhile, international donors, including the United States, have yet to release the majority of funding that was pledged for reconstruction, such as debris removal and construction of temporary shelter. Port au Prince remains buried under rubble, and there is no realistic prospect of finding suitable shelter for more than a million displaced people anytime in the near future.

So those who rode out Tomas in the camps weren’t standing up to a hurricane. They were standing up to failed government policies that left them with no place else to go. And therein lies the story of Haiti, whose people have faced and survived all kinds of disasters —poverty, environmental degradation and economic insecurity, to name a few. Those disasters were each man-made, and so was the disaster that camp residents narrowly survived this weekend.

Bergin is a law professor at South Texas College of Law in Houston and co-director of You.Me.We., a disaster law center that defends human rights in the aftermath of sudden-onset disasters. Phillips is a staff attorney with the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti and assistant director for Haiti Programs with the University of San Francisco School of Law.

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