Haiti: Government Destroys Refugee Camps

“Everything we owned got smashed. We lost everything.”


Getro Nelio was not referring to the devastating earthquake of January 12. The unemployed, 24-year-old Haitian was speaking about losing his home a second time in three months, on this occasion due to the government. Since late March, armed Haitian police have been closing camps and destroying the shelters that quake victims created out of whatever supplies they could scavenge, from cardboard to small strips of tin. U.N. troops sometimes aid in the evictions.


The expulsions and renewed homelessness come at a time of growing urgency for permanent, sturdy housing, with water, utilities, and sewer, where people can stabilize their lives and rebuild community. “Decent housing” is protected by both the Haitian constitution and the U.N. International Declaration of Human Rights.


Haitian government officials and international aid agencies have revealed no plan to meet these needs or fulfill these rights of the 1.3 million left displaced – one in nine citizens. Instead, rare public statements evidence conflicting strategies for limited, temporary initiatives. 


In the aftermath of the earthquake, government officials spoke of moving people to well-planned camps in advance of the rainy season. In March, officials suggested that people should resume residence in their former homes, many of which they said were still habitable. (Survivors, some of whom watched the walls of their cracked houses lean more with each major aftershock, demurred.) The government’s official reconstruction plan, presented to international donors in March, asserts that it will set up temporary shelters in five locales which will become long-term housing “with sustainable infrastructure and basic services,” but gives little detail of how this is to happen. The government has apparently acquired land to house 100,000 people, but some of it is far from jobs, schools, health care, and food markets, as well as family and community.


International agencies speak of constructing 130,000 “semi-permanent” shelters, some of which will have walls made of tarps. Some international agencies suggest that Haitians will convert their transitional houses into permanent ones, through such additions as chicken wire and plaster. Monetary resources and material aid are in critically short supply among earthquake survivors, and it is not apparent how they will come by such construction materials. Some have not even found their first tent after a three-and-a-half month search, and remain sleeping on sidewalks and in cars.


Hurricane season begins June 1. This month, a Miami branch chief of the National Hurricane Center said that early signs suggest the 2010 season will be “busy." One factor is warm water, and waters in the tropical Atlantic are at their warmest in recorded history. A second factor is that El Niño, which disrupts hurricane formation, is likely to dissipate this season.


Four storms that hit Haiti in three weeks in 2008 killed 793 people and left more than 310 missing, according to Haitian government figures.


Homeless Twice in Three Months


After the earthquake killed Nelio’s father and destroyed the family’s home in Carrefour Feuilles, Nelio spent weeks trying to obtain a tarp or tent for his family to live in. His hopes rose and fell with various promises of agencies and friends. Finally, a foreign photographer whom he had befriended gave him money, and he bought a tent, plus wood and a tarp for a second structure to house his family. The nine members include a child as young as 15 months and his 57-year-old mother. They took up residence in the Sylvio Cator soccer stadium along with about 7,000 other people.


On April 9 or 10 (Nelio was unsure, and press accounts differ), Nelio said that “the director of the camp told us that the next day everyone had to leave the field.” The owner had allegedly demanded the stadium back so that the soccer teams could recommence their practices and games there. “They said they were going to give every family 1000 gourde (US$24.84) and a little three-person tent. The next morning, they started throwing people out. When it happened, I had already left, and my mother had gone out to look for another place to live. People organized a demonstration to demand the aid they promised us.


“When that happened, they sent in CIMO [anti-riot squads] to crush our houses and beat us with sticks as though we were dogs. By the time my mother and I got back, they had already destroyed our little house. One CIMO officer beat me on the head, cutting it open. He beat me on the chest and the back, he pushed me, he pulled his machine gun on me. People were shouting for help. My mother was crying. I told her to relax,” Nelio said.


Nelio reported that at least some of those were present when the eviction started were given small tents. Neither his family nor many others got new housing supplies or assistance in relocating. His family has had to separate. Nelio is living in another internally displaced people’s camp, while other family members are dispersed across town.


Few Options for Those Evicted


Similar expulsions have occurred at a handful of other sites, and more are threatened. As schools begin to reopen throughout Port-au-Prince, residents of some of the 79 camps on school grounds have been evicted. 


The parents and MINUSTAH [the U.N. mission] say that the families have to leave. We understand that, but where are they going to go? They have to give us some alternative,” said Micheline Sainvilus, an unemployed mother of six children who has been living in a cluster of tents filling a small street close to the center of town. Her own children are not in school because they lost their uniforms when their house collapsed.


The U.N. mission announced that the Haitian government declared a moratorium on forced evictions on April 22, but the government itself has remained quiet.


In April, the government opened a large camp called Corail Cesselesse near the town of Croix-des-Bouquets, just under an hour’s drive from downtown Port-au-Prince. Three thousand people have already been relocated there from other camps, and 3,000 more are supposed to join them in the long rows of white tents on white gravel, with no trees or other shade. “It’s a desert, nothing but sand. What are they supposed to do in the sun in the middle of the day?” Nelio asked.


Residents of the camp in the Champs de Mars park have been hearing rumors for weeks that they will be forced to evacuate and move to Corail, but they claim no one has told them anything definitive about their fate. “Croix-des-Bouquets? I don’t know anyone there.  How will I work? Where will my kids go to school?” said one woman from her open-air residence under a tarp. “I hear that it costs 100 gourdes ($2.48) to take the bus there,” said another. That is more money than most homeless survivors see in days.


The government has opened a second tent settlement, and several others are under development. Josette Perard, director of the Haiti office of the Lambi Fund, said, “The Haitian people are rebellious. If they don’t want to be there, they won’t stay.”


Uncertainty and Anger over the Future


Most who lost their homes in the earthquake were renters, and have no way to reclaim either their former lodging or the rent which they typically pay in six-month installments. Of those who own their home, several reported in interviews, their land is now buried in rubble and they have no money to pay to clear it so that they erect a shelter. Port-au-Prince is an extremely densely packed city with little open land. Those who choose not to stay in one of the new settlements may be forced to reconstruct substandard houses on steep hillsides and ravines – exactly what caused such a high toll in the recent earthquake.


Anger is growing among the displaced and their allies, with demonstrations following suit. The Support Group for the Repatriated and Refugees (GARR, by its French acronym) is one of many to denounce the action, releasing a statement on April 28 calling on the Haitian government to “assume its leadership in caring for the displaced,” in accordance with the Guiding Principles on Internal Displacement by the U.N. Office for Coordination of Humanitarian Affairs.


Those principles include the following (excerpted):


  • National authorities have the primary duty and responsibility to provide protection and humanitarian assistance to internally displaced persons;
  • All internally displaced persons have the right to an adequate standard of living;
  • Authorities shall provide internally displaced persons with food and potable water, basic shelter and clothing; essential medical services and sanitation;
  • Authorities concerned shall ensure [that] displaced children receive education which shall be free.


From the camp where he now lives, this time in the Champs de Mars park beside the decimated National Palace, Getro Nelio said, “I’ve been abandoned without any help. The Haitian state isn’t doing anything for anyone. I have nothing. I just sit here with my two arms crossed.”



Sources: Research for this article was conducted through live and telephone interviews over the past six weeks. Addition information was gained from: Charles Arthur, “Earthquake Victims Face New Trials with Forced Evictions,” NotiCen, April 29, 2010; Ken Ellingwood, “Three months after the earthquake, schools and businesses want their land back,” Los Angeles Times, April 29, 2010; AlterPresse, “L’expert independent de l’ONU se les droits humains souhaite un moratoire se les expulsions de presonnes déplaceées,” April 30, 2010; Frank Bajak, “Transitional housing slowly getting built in Haiti,” Associated Press, April 30, 2010; and Christine dell’Amore, “Hurricane Could Push Spilled Gulf Oil Into New Orleans,” National Geographic News, May 5, 2010.

Beverly Bell has worked with Haitian social movements for over 30 years.  She is also author of the book Walking on Fire: Haitian Women’s Stories of Survival and Resistance.  She coordinates Other Worlds, www.otherworldsarepossible.org, which promotes social and economic alternatives. She is also associate fellow of the Institute for Policy Studies.