No Tarp Relief for Haiti's Homeless

Individual Americans donated a total of $1.4bn after the 2010 earthquake, yet 600,000 Haitians are still living in tents. Why?

PORT-AU-PRINCE -- At a sprawling internally displaced persons (IDP) camp of battered tents and tarps, in the Barbancourt neighbourhood of Port-au-Prince, a confrontation was underway. A landlord, who claimed ownership over land on which some 75 families had been living since the earthquake, was very angry. A crowd of hundreds had gathered and a man in his thirties said that the landlord had beaten him and destroyed his tent.

"These people have been here for 19 months and I want them out of here!" the landlord shouted. He was yelling in English now because a group of activists had arrived, including the actor and human rights campaigner Danny Glover. They were defending the camp residents, but the landlord wasn't having it.

Meanwhile, a group of heavily armed troops from Minustah - the UN military force that has occupied the country for the past seven years - came on the scene. They were tense and sweating in the morning heat, and as the confrontation continued and the crowd spilled into the street, another contingent of troops arrived, bringing the total to about 15.

Finally, a well-known human rights lawyer, Mario Joseph of the Bureau des Avocats Internationaux (BAI), showed up. He explained to the landlord - in another heated argument - that there was a legal and judicial process for evictions, and that as a matter of law, people could not be evicted without a court decision. The standoff came to an end, for the moment, as residents returned to the camp to avoid being locked out and possibly losing their possessions.

Nineteen months after the earthquake, almost 600,000 Haitian people are still living in camps, mostly under tents and tarps. Despite the billions of dollars of aid pledged by governments and donors since the earthquake, there are probably less than 50,000 that have been resettled. And for the 600,000 homeless, the strategy seems to be moving in the direction of evictions - without regard as to where they might end up.

"The government, in collaboration with international donors and some NGOs, is trying to pretend that there is no land," says Etant Dupain, an activist with the group Bri Kouri Novel Gaye (Noise Travels, News Spreads). His group is organising to stop the evictions, and he was present in the confrontation in Barbancourt on Saturday, where he tried to defuse the confrontation by talking to the landlord, whom he happened to know. "But there is land," Dupain said to the landlord. "They gave a big piece of land to Minustah, and this was cultivated land."

Indeed, this seems to be the heart of the problem: the international donors, led by the US, do not seem to care enough to resolve the problem by "building back better", as President Clinton promised after the earthquake. Or building much of anything, really. (Clinton heads up the Haiti Interim Recovery Commission - which, until recently, was called the Haiti Interim Reconstruction Commission; he is also the UN's special envoy to Haiti.)

A visit to another IDP camp called Corail, about 12 miles outside Port-au-Prince, makes this lack of commitment clear. About 10,000 people live in "transitional shelters", which are made of plywood and have a cement floor and corrugated steel roof. It's not exactly a house, but is a huge step-up from a tent or tarp, which floods in the rain and can be entered with a razor blade. The shelters are about 18sq m each and designed to last three to five years. Just across the fence, another 60,000 people are surviving in tents and tarps.

Building transitional housing would not be a long-term solution to the problem - people need to be resettled in permanent homes, and equally importantly, they need jobs - but transitional housing could be built for the entire IDP population at a cost of around $200m. This should be doable, considering that international donors have pledged $5.6bn since the earthquake (pdf).

But to do this, the government would have to acquire the necessary land. This is entirely constitutional, in many countries including the United States, and compensation could be provided to the landowners. Land ownership is, of course, very poorly documented in Haiti, but that is no excuse. The land could be acquired first and the owners compensated as their claims are settled. That is where the will is lacking, and the "international community" should bear most of the responsibility here, because in reality they are in charge.

Meanwhile, landowners - or those who claim to own the land which is occupied by about 1000 IDP camps - have stepped up their efforts at evictions, often through violence and coercion. Some have hired thugs with machetes and knives to destroy tents. In the Port-au-Prince suburb of Delmas, the mayor has ordered police to deploy, without a legal order to evict, destroying tents and using force to evict the residents - the majority of whom are women and children. With the compliance of NGOs, they have sometimes even cut off water supplies. In late May, a 63-year-old woman was killed when a security guard working for the landowner knocked her to the ground in the camp of Orphee Shada.

Some 94% of IDP camp residents have said they would leave if they could, according to a recent Intentions Survey from the International Organisation for Migration. They just have no place to go.

Half of all American households donated money to Haiti after the earthquake, for a total of $1.4bn in private donations; and the US Congress has appropriated more than $1bn in addition. Why can't this money be used to provide shelter for the victims of the earthquake, 19 months later?

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