Haiti’s Earthquake Survivors Revictimized by State-Sanctioned Forced Evictions

We stood in a tight group, over a dozen blan huddled together, trying not to obstruct the narrow path between the makeshift shelters of corrugated metal, cardboard, plastic and tin. We listened to a community spokesperson, a representative of the group KOFAVIV (Komisyon Fanm Viktim pou Viktim, or Commission of Women Victims for Victims). She explained how she and the other displaced earthquake survivors, who had lost their homes in the quake, had been supported in their camp in the park across from St. Anne's Church at first by Oxfam until Oxfam picked up and left in May of this year.

Despite the millions of dollars raised in both private donations and government funds in the weeks and months following Haiti's catastrophic earthquake, no other nongovernmental organization (NGO) had stepped in to provide for the camps' residents. They were left to fend for themselves. Now, she worried that they were also threatened with eviction: there was a rumor that two representatives of a large NGO had been by that very morning, warning them to prepare to be evicted October 17. (Thankfully, subsequent investigation suggests that in this particular case, the imminent threat of eviction was merely a rumor.) But considering other recent forced evictions, the camp residents had good reason to be concerned, and we had no choice but to take the threat seriously.

How did the survivors of Haiti's earthquake go from being the focus of a historic outpouring of solidarity and support in the days and weeks after the earthquake, to being victimized again – this time by human actions?

Stories of forced evictions of Haiti's internally displaced persons (known as “IDPs” in NGO jargon) have received some limited media coverage, although much more is warranted. But what coverage there has been has often focused on evictions from privately owned land. We were told repeatedly that the root of post-quake Haiti's housing problem is the lack of access to land. This purported shortage is complicated by the lack of proof of clear ownership in many cases. Without available land, there is nowhere for people to go. Some choose to return to their quake-damaged homes, despite that fact that the majority of such homes were severely damaged and are too dangerous for human habitation.

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Staying on privately held land is dangerous. According to the International Organization for Migration [PDF], as of March, thousands of Haitian IDPs had been forcibly evicted from camps located on private land through the use of violence, and 166,000 more had been threatened with eviction. Considering these perils, it is understandable why many camps sprung up on public land: in parks, stadiums, fields and other green spaces.

Yet these are not safe zones, either. Despite promises that the new Haitian president, Michel Martelly, made upon taking office, the Haitian government seems intent on removing displaced quake survivors from public lands. Soccer games or strolls through empty parks are apparently more important than offering people a place to live, with a roof – however flimsy – over their heads to protect them from the elements.

Martelly presented his camp closure plan as part of an initiative to move current camp residents into more permanent housing. The plan offers compensation to IDPs of up to $500 USD per family for one year to move from camps to rental units, and $150 USD to families to return to their pre-earthquake homes. (Between $1,500-$3,500 USD is also offered to those who agree to repair their homes and offer free stays to other IDPs for two to five years.) When he announced the plan, Martelly vowed to close all of Haiti's IDP camps, home to almost 600,000 people, within six months, including six camps to be closed within his first 100 days in office.

But the Martelly administration hasn't always waited for the displaced quake survivors to move willingly. Earlier this month, the Institute for Justice & Democracy in Haiti (IJDH) and the University of San Francisco School of Law noted that “a survey conducted in six displacement camps scheduled to close under his 100-day plan shows that the government's closure of camps so far has resulted in unlawful, violent evictions of displaced communities in direct contrast to the durable solutions touted under the plan.” In a report on the 100-day plan, the groups also described how, “even before the plan began to be implemented, the government moved to close two camps: Stade Sylvio Cator residents 'were unlawfully evicted by the Mayor of Port-au-Prince and Haitian National Police without a court order, as required under Haitian law,'” with police destroying the camp residents' tents and meager belongings. Residents of Place St. Pierre, a camp on public land, were also partially evicted “without the protections or benefits promised in the Martelly plan.”

Compensation for the displaced has been inadequate, the report found, describing how not all residents were given government money as incentive to leave the Stade Sylvio Cator camp. Those who were compensated received only $250 USD. “All of the residents surveyed said that the money was not enough for them to relocate or pay rent. Nor was the money enough to build a basic 12×10 foot shack with a concrete floor, plywood walls and corrugated metal roof, which costs an average of US$300 – leaving many residents without shelter.” The twice-displaced Stade Sylvio Cator residents reported that conditions at their new camp were even worse than before, in terms of security, lighting, sanitation, water and food (continuing to leave women and children at particular risk for violent crime). As journalist Justin Podur notes, the port-a-johns at the new camp are positioned on a highway median.

These are not the only camp residents to have felt the impact of state-sanctioned violence and coercion. As one of the authors of this article, Bill Quigley of the Center for Constitutional Rights, and Jocelyn Brooks of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI) in Haiti, reported in June, “Marie, a 25-year-old pregnant mother, was injured by government agents when they slammed a wooden door into her stomach during an early morning invasion of an earthquake displacement camp in Port au Prince.” Camp residents told Quigley and Brooks that Marie, “had been assaulted by men who entered their camp at the order of the mayor of the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas.” When a BAI attorney questioned the leader of the thugs who assaulted Marie, however, he said that “the National Palace” had dispatched them to the camp.

The Martelly administration has also stood idly by as thousands of other displaced residents have been evicted from camps on private land. In some cases, the private landowners – who often have only dubious claims to landownership – have hired thugs to brutalize camp residents. Haitian police officers and United Nations (UN) troops, from the United Nations Stabilization Mission in Haiti (MINUSTAH), have often aided in the forced evictions.

Actor and activist Danny Glover, along with the Center for Economic and Policy Research's Mark Weisbrot and Nicole Lee of TransAfrica Forum, intervened to temporarily halt a forced eviction in August. The camp was the Barbancourt 17 camp, home to over 40 families. The landlord, according to Nicole Lee, referred to the displaced residents as “disposable people.” MINUSTAH troops stood by, uneasily watching the verbal confrontation between Danny Glover and the apparent landowner. While the Americans' intervention bought the residents some time, Podur reported that, “The camp residents were evicted suddenly on Wednesday [September 28, 2011], with no plan or provision made for where they were supposed to go. Some have been taken in by family and friends, while some are living in cars, others in alleys and streets.”

While the motivations of a private landowner, no matter how unsavory, are at least easier to understand, it is incomprehensible why the Haitian government is throwing the survivors of Haiti's greatest calamity into the street. Such actions directly contradict the pro-Martelly propaganda that now adorns numerous billboards in Port-au-Prince: that Martelly stands with the people.

Critics have noted that Martelly – known mostly as a konpa music performer and for his lewd on-stage antics – has known ties to Duvalierists (supporters of former dictator Jean-Claude Duvalier) and perpetrators of past coups d'etat. Martelly has not hidden these associations; a new AP article notes that “[Duvalier's] son serves as a consultant to the country's new president, Michel Martelly, while others with links to Duvalier's hated and feared regime work for the administration.” Martelly has admitted that he was formerly a member of the Tonton Macoutes – Duvalier's dreaded secret police. In this context, state-sanctioned forced evictions and mass violations of people's rights carry an ominous, deeper subtext. If Martelly wants to convince the Haitian people that he truly stands with them, stopping forced evictions and prioritizing construction of permanent shelters for displaced earthquake survivors would be a sensible first step. The international community, the many people around the world who demonstrated support for the earthquake survivors and anyone who stands in solidarity with the Haitian people should demand nothing less.