By. Tosin Sulaiman, Trustlaw
In Camp Barbancourt II in the Haitian capital Port-au-Prince, a pool of foul-smelling, stagnant wastewater surrounds the tents and tarpaulins that have sheltered 310 families since last January’s earthquake. The pool can rise to three feet when it rains.
Lawyers helping camp residents say the purported landowner, who operates a warehousing business on the land, is using the health risk as an excuse to force them to leave. Last July, the landowner turned up with 24 armed policemen in what turned out to be an unsuccessful attempt to evict the families.
The case highlights the inhumane housing conditions many Haitians continue to endure one year after the earthquake, as well as the constant threat of unlawful evictions, lawyers with the Institute for Justice and Democracy (IJDH) in Haiti, say.
The U.S.-based organisation, along with its Haitian affiliate, the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux, leads the Lawyers Earthquake Response Network, a group of attorneys working on various legal issues stemming from the January 12, 2010 quake.
“Part of what we try to do is to leverage a larger solution,” Brian Concannon, the Institute’s director, told TrustLaw. “The real solution is to push the government and the international community to create at least emergency housing or preferably transitional housing.”
The earthquake, which killed 316,000 people, according to the Haitian government, also destroyed or damaged at least 180,000 homes. Around 1.5 million people now live in more than 1,000 internally displaced persons (IDP) camps, most of them in Port-au-Prince.
Since the earthquake, IJDH has been documenting conditions in the camps, Concannon said. It is conducting a survey of Haitian families made homeless by the earthquake, focusing on their access to food, water and shelter.
The Institute is also working with Haitian grassroots groups to inform around two dozen communities facing unlawful eviction about their right to housing. The United Nations estimates that at least 28,000 people have been evicted so far, while an additional 140,000 face the threat of eviction.
IJDH began hearing reports of evictions, mostly from school land, in March. Since then, many of the evictions have been from private land, including churches and sports centres. As well as attempting to cut off aid supplies, purported landowners often show up with bulldozers, armed guards or police.
According to IJDH, these tactics are designed to exploit the vulnerability of residents, who include single mothers, families with young children, the elderly and disabled people. There have also been reports of attempted rapes and physical attacks on residents.
“The use or threat of force is prevalent in every case we’ve heard of,” said Nicole Phillips, an IJDH staff attorney who heads the housing programme. “If it’s not Haitian police it’s the use of gangs.”
Complicating the disputes is the insecurity of land tenure in Haiti. Ownership of just five per cent of the country’s land was officially recorded before the earthquake.
“A lot of people who are claiming to be landowners don’t have legal title to the land,” said Phillips, who quit her job as a union labour lawyer in San Francisco after the quake to work pro bono for IJDH. “One of the things that’s going on right now is a land grab.”
WANTED: LONG TERM SOLUTION
When a community is threatened with eviction, the lawyers inform the purported landowner and the police that they need to go through the proper legal process, which requires the landowner to prove that he owns the land.
Since November, they have also visited camps to provide “know your rights” training, educating residents on their rights under Haitian and international law and the rights guaranteed to them as displaced persons. In addition, BAI’s Haitian lawyers defend individuals who face threats by alleged property owners.
“They will basically be grassroots organisers from their own camps,” said Jeena Shah, an IJDH pro bono lawyer who assists in the cases. “The landowner will have thugs to attack them or sometimes will do it himself to stop them from organising but also to send a message to the rest of the camp. Sometimes the landowner himself will file a complaint against them as a means to threaten them.”
Another part of IJDH’s strategy is fighting the evictions on an international level.
In November, following a petition filed by the Institute and its partners, the Inter-American Commission on Human Rights called on the Haitian government to intoduce a moratorium on the evictions until alternative housing is provided for camp residents. Although the Commission has no independent enforcement capacity, IJDH says the ruling will aid its advocacy efforts.
In the long term, IJDH says the Haitian government needs to allocate land for permanent relocation, otherwise communities will remain in an impasse.
“The problem is there hasn’t been a formal plan of resettlement at all,” said Phillips. “What needs to happen is a designation of either private land or public land (where the government can) send people on a temporary or permanent basis so that they’re not crowding these camps.”
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